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.