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The Missing Piece

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

Many years ago, I was interviewing John Kromer, a bright and able public servant who was then head of the Office of Housing and Community Development. As I recall, he was showing me a map of a section of North Philadelphia where OHCD was in the process of building a new housing development.

The plan was to provide housing for the poor, but it also included a component of market-rate housing. The idea - a new one at the time - was to draw working- and middle-class families to buy these homes, in the hope that this would spark repopulation of the area.

As Kromer pointed to the map, he showed me the advantages: proximity to a shopping district, good connections to Center City via bus and subway, a decent recreation center close by. Seeing the outlines of a large building in the middle of the map, I asked him what it was. He said that is the local elementary school.

I knew that, in terms of performance, it was among the worst schools in the city and I asked something along the lines of: How can you expect people to move there if that they have to send their children to that public school?

Well, Kromer said, that is a piece we do not control.
He was right, of course. He did not control the schools. But the success of his project depended very much on parents' perception of that school. And middle class and working class parents with aspirations for their children would not send them there. Period. 

Instead, if they moved to that development, they would begin the time-honored ritual dance of finding a better school and securing a place for their children there. This was in the '80s so charter schools were not an option. Many of the local Catholic schools in the neighborhood had closed.

But, we were still in the midst of court-ordered desegregation, so if the parents were lucky (and black) they could find a good school that needed black students and could send their child to one of them -- a choice that often meant a long bus ride up Roosevelt Boulevard, with stops along the way to pick up other deseg kids.

The dance continues today, though it has changed because there are more choices for parents, thanks mostly to the arrival and growth of charter schools, but also due to the district responding to parent demand and creating more "niche" schools, though mostly at the high school level.

This is prelude to offering a new and radical idea in thinking about community development. Why not consider schools first?

 When we think of schools, we tend to concentrate on the education that goes on inside its walls. This is appropriate. But, we need to think of schools in a broader way - as a neighborhood asset with the ability to stabilize - or destabilize - the surrounding area. Why don't we think about schools in this way in the city? They certainly do in the suburbs.

In the burbs, people make decisions on where to move based on the quality of local schools. Then they look for a home within their price range. In the city, people tend to look for a home first, and then they begin the dance to find a good school.

In a recent study by Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, 36 percent of the parents polled said they sent their children to public schools outside their neighborhood. (Full disclosure: I was principal author of the report).

And here is a second radical idea. Who cares what kind of school that good school is? If it is public, so be it. If it is charter, fine. If it is Catholic that is okay, too. And if there is no good option why not work to create one? For instance, why not encourage charters to locate in neighborhoods that are in the midst of renewal or stabilization - and allow them to accept mostly neighborhood children. (Right now, under state law, charters must only accept students citywide).

If there is a Catholic school that works, why not offer subsidies to neighborhood parents who want to send their children there? Tuition at Catholic elementary schools currently is in the $2,600-a-year range. (As an aside, I should mention that more and more non-Catholics are choosing Catholic schools).

One objection is that by using public funds to create these additional options, it may undermine the local public school, creaming the better students. This is another way of saying that competition from good schools will put bad schools at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, it may just prompt the neighborhood public school to get better so it can better compete. Another radical idea.

 For years, we have been trying to revive and sustain neighborhoods without considering the schools. It is like trying to bake a cake without eggs. And we wonder why it comes out flat?

Schools are too important to be left solely to educators. We don't have the luxury of letting that remain the case. The future of the city depends upon having good schools in place.

It is the piece we need to control. 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.
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