Can Gentrification mean Integration? Hopes for the Urban Neighborhood School

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source:  Green & Write, May 13, 2016

The Less-Considered Outcome of Gentrification

Green & Write’s previous post about gentrification and neighborhood schools highlighted the more common criticism of gentrification and urban areas—as more affluent, mostly white, families move into a lower-cost city neighborhood, low-income families of color are often displaced, finding themselves excluded from the communities that have been their own for generations. Compounding this displacement is the fact that gentrifying families often reject neighborhood schools (especially in instances of educational redlining by real-estate companies), leaving these schools starving for enrollment and funding, and ill equipped to serve the students left behind.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

While less common, there is an alternative outcome to this dismal scenario. In recent years, gentrifying families in greater numbers have chosen to enroll their children in the traditional public schools in their new neighborhoods. Rather than choosing schools for their stellar academic records or pristine facilities, many upper-middle class parents want to become a part of the neighborhoods they’ve chosen, which means supporting and enrolling their kids in the neighborhood school.

These families see themselves as rebelling against the racially charged decision to flee to the suburbs that their parents’ generation made, and want to live in walkable city communities. They value exposure to diversity and economic inequality as an important part of their children’s education, and use the neighborhood schools as a vehicle to teach their kids about their own privilege. While there is certainly reason to be doubtful of these intentions, there is also reason to be cautiously optimistic that the troubling inevitability of gentrification could actually contribute to a solution to what is arguably public education’s greatest problem: Historical and persistent racial and socioeconomic segregation.

Integration as a Possibility

In the current cultural context of obsession with test scores, individual academic achievement, and the pressure to choose the very best school for their child’s future, many middle-class families have decided to reject this pressure for performance. Choosing a neighborhood city school is a political statement as much as it is a personal choice—it demonstrates a commitment to the idea of public education, as well as a desire to participate in the community already in place in a neighborhood area.

This can be a good thing for neighborhood schools. Middle-class families bring the enrollment dollars associated with their own child’s attendance, as well as the possibility of influencing their likeminded peers to do the same. In addition to increasing the actual enrollment of a school, they have social capital and resources to contribute. Middle-class families are more likely to place demands for accountability around curriculum and expectations for rigorous instruction, and organize fundraising activities to improve facilities. Indeed, research has shown that the presence of middle-class students contributes to the improvement of academic achievement for all of a school’s students. This integration might be the first step in remedying the effects of the massive deficit of enrollment and social capital left in the wake of the last four decades of white flight to suburban schools.

Potential Policy for Successful Integration

Like any good news for public education, the idea of integration in urban schools should be approached with care. Two concerns in particular should be considered.

First, since middle-class, white parents are shopping for schools and see diversity as a selling point, there is a danger in the commodification of students of color who attend a neighborhood school. That is, parents may look at test scores, school culture, ease of transportation, and racial makeup through a similar lens, asking themselves, “How many of my priorities are fulfilled by this school?” If one of those priorities is the presence of minority children, these children aren’t viewed as equals with their own children. Rather, their mere presence is another of the school’s attributes intended to serve their needs. This can lead to middle-class parents advocating for school improvements that benefit their children at the expense of others, or the marginalization of families who have traditionally had a say in the school’s priorities.

Second, as discussed in my previous post on gentrification, schools that middle-class families make popular often become highly sought after among other middle-class families, which can price out families who have lived there all along. Minority students may be forced out by the increasing cost of living in the neighborhood, the implementation of militant zero-tolerance behavior policies meant to assuage parents’ fears of safety issues, or a comparative shortage of social capital to advocate for their enrollment in their chosen school. However, this potential problem can be at least partially prevented through thoughtful policy.

Once integration is on the rise in these urban neighborhood schools, there must be a concerted effort on the part of schools and local governments to prioritize the enrollment and involvement of lower-income families and families of color. This will look different depending on the context, but creating quotas for the number of minority and low-income students enrolled in a given school is a good start.

Likewise, school and district leaders should implement outreach policies to actively engage the voices of families who may otherwise be outshouted by middle-class parents.  University of Chicago Professor Micere Keeles reiterates this idea: “The burden cannot rest on the shoulders of individual gentrifying parents, who may want to do “right” thing and, at the same time, feel compelled to provide their children with the highest-quality education possible. Local governments need to prioritize better-integrated schools for everyone.”

These efforts will be absolutely necessary if the gentrification trends in American cities are to result in integration rather than increased marginalization of vulnerable populations. Yet, with strategic and equitable local policy choices, the very best of integration’s impacts might be possible.

“If kids grow up in their neighborhood school together,” says Keeles, “they have a much deeper appreciation for their neighborhood’s socioeconomic differences. Treating neighborhood schools as a public good builds cohesion and benefits the community as a whole.” With families’ increased willingness to live in diverse neighborhoods, and government’s active role in ensuring equity as this trend increases, the next decade of public schooling in the American city may just be a promising one.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.