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Can Schools Alone Save Struggling Communities?

| Claus von Zastrow

Here's how John Cooper of the Sundance Film Festival described a new documentary on public schools: "It's an analysis of how bad neighborhoods don't necessarily create bad schools, but bad schools create bad neighborhoods... ."

This strikes me as an oversimplification -- and possibly a harmful one at that.

A visit to Carstens Elementary School in Detroit might prompt Cooper to reconsider his view. The school, which is in one of the city's many blighted neighborhoods, is slated for closure in June. You might assume that the school is performing poorly and that it has become another dead weight on the life prospects of poor children in Detroit.

But you'd be wrong. Carstens has been a bright spot in the often dismal story of the city's troubles over the past few decades. Almost every Carstens student receives free or reduced-price lunch, but the school's third-graders outscored their peers statewide in every tested subject.

Carstens has done just about everything right: A stellar leader works closely with her devoted staff to give every child personal attention; they use data to adapt their teaching to students' diverse needs; and teachers work in teams to ensure that no student falls between the cracks. They also forge strong and lasting partnerships with families, and care passionately about the children who come through their doors every day.

The school also teams with partners in the community to ease the burdens of poverty. It provides coats for children who need them, breakfast for children who go to school hungry, eye glasses for children who can't see the chalkboard, safe passage for students who have to walk down dark city streets, medical and dental care for children who need it, legal help for parents, and even emergency funds to help families keep the lights on. Carstens staff has called their school a "beacon of light" in dark times. (For more information about the school, see a recent interview with Carstens staff.)

In spite of all this good work, Carstens is on the draft list of forty-plus schools to be shuttered this year. There simply just aren't enough students to fill the grand old building. Between 2002 and 2009, the number of students enrolled in Detroit Public Schools plummeted from 157,003 to 83,777 -- a staggering 46 percent drop. As whole neighborhoods atrophy, even good schools can face dwindling enrollments and end up on the chopping block.

Beacon though it may be, Carstens will not save its neighborhood from the effects of massive population loss. It seems, in fact, that Carstens and its community will succumb to those effects together. Would the decline have been less severe if Carstens had fed into an equally wonderful middle school and high school? Probably. But I'm not sure we can expect schools alone to make up for the lack of opportunity that drives people out of our struggling urban centers.

Carstens may well have a second life in another part of town. The city plans to merge the school with a struggling middle school in another building. The merger is part of an ambitious plan to consolidate schools amidst a deep financial crisis caused in large part by the population loss. If anyone can carry off this merger, the people at Carstens can. But it will be a different school in a different building serving a broader community. If all goes well, the merger will lift more boats than it sinks.

Carstens teaches us an important lesson. It's perverse to argue that "bad" neighborhoods produce "bad" schools. But it's just as perverse to claim that "bad" schools create "bad" neighborhoods. The current rhetoric of school reform notwithstanding, you just can't expect educators to bear the whole weight of a city's decline and resurgence on their shoulders.

Detroit's schools will no doubt be a vital part of the city's renaissance. This great city cannot get back on its feet without great schools -- a magnet for new economic investment and opportunity. But schools and communities will have to share the weight of reform and renewal, and they'll need real help from policy makers.

We must invest time, energy -- and, yes, dollars -- in schools and communities whose children face such dim prospects in both good and bad times. In neighborhoods across the country we can do a far better job of coordinating existing efforts to support children both within and beyond schools. These ideas animate Obama's plans to create Promise Neighborhoods in struggling communities nationwide.

The fate of any school is interwoven with that of its community, and its problems cannot continue to be treated in isolation.

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Comments (7)

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I teach in a low socioeconomic area and the school in which I teach is sometimes the only safe haven that the students have. It is awful that Carstens has to be closed due to drop in population. It seems that the school was the only bright spot in the neighborhood. Why change something that has been working so well for the community? Hopefully things will continue to improve once the school is merged with the middle school. Maybe Carstens can shine their "beacon of light" on the middle school and have not one, but two bright spots in the community.

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i can't believe they would close this great school' i was there back in the 60's. i would like to hear from some of the old classmates

Wrong People Deciding

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There could be hope for the spirit of Carsten’s to continue on in the merger. It is possible that the teachers from the middle school will embrace the teachers from Carsten’s based simply on the fact that the school has proven successful in the past. However, we are all human and the chances are equal that the teachers from the new school will resent or shun the Carsten’s staff.

The problem boils down to the fact that the wrong people are making the decisions. In a perfect world, all successful school would not only remain open, but would train or at least be an example for other schools in crisis. As it stands in most cases, the people making the decisions to close schools or merge schools or districts just to save a buck are so far removed from the classroom that they judgment is clouded.

I realize that at the end of the day, districts have budgets. I realize that a free education is not free. However, I believe governments need to quickly decide what is most important. Is it better to not give children a good foundation of education or should we be most concerned with educations, which leads to jobs, security, and a more stable economy? Who should decide?

Low Income School Districts

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It is truly a shame that schools that are making a difference, however significant, are being shut down due to location and population decrease. As an educator in a low income school district I see the positive effects school can have on many of my students. For many of my students school is the place where they can be nurtured and loved, feed a decent meal and feel safe for a few hours out of the day. More than half of the students I see are on free/reduced lunch, come from single parent households, and have a parent and/or loved one incarcerated. Then these children come to school and we are expected to educate them? It is a difficult situation to say the least.

To make the statement that “bad schools create bad neighborhoods” reflects little of what is truly occurring within many of America’s low income school districts. It is a travesty that schools like Carsten in Detroit are being closed down. I agree that more time, energy and money must be invested in low income school districts if we ever want to see change. Something needs to be done soon for school districts like these if we ever want to see positive change in our students and communities again.

Stand alone schools

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It sadden me to hear that they close the school. Carsten's mission for creating life long learners, and positive service to the community is what all school's should do. Schools are always the first to feel the backfall from the economy.

Schools & Communities Inextricably Linked

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I have often marveled that schools are viewed so frequently in isolation from the communities in which they are situated. Schools cannot fix all of society's ills, and society cannot fix ills without schools.

ESL Teacher

Schools as the vanguard

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It's a pity that this school had to close down, but urban depopulation is a hard reality (though I wonder whether or not the suburbs will soon swell and send people back in). No matter what, I firmly believe that the heart of urban revitalization is in the schools.

In no other place do you have such a collection of minds and bodies with the sole purpose of betterment and edification. The collective potential embodied in a city's students is its hope, its chance, its future.

Teachers can't wait for the local, state, or federal education department to press Go, though. Theirs is the responsibility to get the ball rolling, by whatever means necessary.

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