WASHINGTON – Ellington Turner and his mother, Marlece, began to cry.
The seventh-grader had just gotten word that his school, MacFarland Middle School in Washington, D.C.’s fast-gentrifying Petworth neighborhood, would be closed following the 2012-2013 school year.
That year, MacFarland, the only public middle school in Petworth, was one of 15 Washington public schools scheduled to be closed.
For the Turners, and for some of their fellow Petworth residents, the neighborhood school had been a comfort, even though the students’ test scores often lagged behind D.C. averages.
“We didn’t have a voice in the closings of the schools. [The city] said we had a voice, but I think in the long run they knew a year in advance they were closing the schools, and we were blindsided,” Marlece said while recounting her experiences in 2012 on a radio show last May.
Since 2008, about 40 public schools in the District of Columbia have closed or have been targeted for shutdowns, in many cases in favor of charter schools. The chief reason, according to the District, has been low enrollment.
But coinciding with closings, the city’s population has been changing.
Washington, D.C., had been the first American city to have a majority black population. That majority held for more than 50 years before the city’s black population fell below 50 percent in 2011.
Over the past 20 years or so, the nation’s capital, similar to many American cities, experienced the urban phenomenon of gentrification: the movement of largely middle-class, often white Americans back into cities, often choosing areas with low living costs, typically populated with minority residents.
Petworth is one such neighborhood undergoing these changes. Locally owned coffee shops and freshly paved bike lanes dot the landscape, which has seen the percentage of its once heavily black population plummet over the past decade.
One of the least understood impacts of gentrification is its role in a neighborhood’s education system. While proponents of gentrification cite a range of positive impacts, including decreased crime rates and increased property values, the impacts on traditional neighborhood schools are murkier.
“We believe [the school closings] are all part of the bigger picture of what’s happening here in the city and among cities around the country that have high populations of people of color where neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying,” said Daniel del Pielago, the education organizer for a group called Empower DC that specializes in rallying residents around community causes. “To us, what we’re seeing is that a lot of these schools that are being closed are in areas where gentrification is happening.”
In gentrifying Washington neighborhoods, for example, even successful public schools find it difficult to draw in the wealthier, typically whiter gentrified population. In Petworth, Barnard Elementary, listed as a“rising” school by Elementary and Secondary Education Act classifications, is only 3 percent white. Similarly, the neighborhood’s Powell Elementary, another good school, is just 2 percent white.
Neither neighborhood school, though, is indicative of Petworth’s population at large. Home to a growing number of young middle-class families, neither school is attracting many of the white students living nearby.
Instead, E.L. Haynes, a Petworth charter school that serves students of basically the same age as the other elementary schools, boasts more racially and economically diverse students.
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The charter school movement, which began in the 1990s, is an educational reform effort that uses public money to fund privately run schools. In recent years, charter schools have grown in major cities such as New Orleans, Chicago and the District, as alternatives to their struggling traditional schools. Students often need to qualify to attend a charter school through lotteries – used in Washington – entrance exams or other requirements.
Schools with higher percentages of low-income students face a range of challenges that wealthier schools don’t. Schools with high percentages of students in poverty are likely to have less experienced teachers and higher staff turnover. And before teaching can even begin, those teachers must also cope with a range of issues relating to their students’ families’ low income, including lack of adequate clothing, food or housing.
Yet with many urban neighborhoods growing wealthier and more diverse, neighborhood public schools should expect to benefit. So why aren’t they?
In cities like Washington, with strong school choice opportunities, it’s often middle- and higher-income students that are most likely to take advantage of resources like selective enrollment schools, according to University of Chicago professor Micere Keels. That leaves many low-income students in socioeconomically segregated schools, without a critical mass of students needed to fund important capital investments such as school repairs.
De facto school segregation isn’t just concentrated in gentrifying neighborhoods. According to theNational Coalition on School Diversity, white students comprise just over half of the nation’s public school students. But the average white student attends a school that is approximately three-quarters white.
Republican-sponsored legislation seeking to replace the 2001 No Child Left Behind law could leave struggling, low-income public schools with fewer resources. The proposed changes would allow Title I funding to “follow” poor students where they go to school, as opposed to the current system, which designates Title I funding for schools with greater than 40 percent low-income students.
The result, according to Democrats, would be a devastating loss of resources for public school districts with concentrated poverty. The Obama administration estimates that approximately 33,600 students in 112 school districts nationwide would lose 50 percent of their Title I funding under the GOP bill.
Research shows that students and teachers benefit from socioeconomic and racial diversity in education. All students are more likely to think critically about diversity issues, low-income students benefit from increased resources brought by wealthier families, and teachers can focus less on issues of student poverty and more time on teaching.
“In truly diverse schools, there’s not one racial culture that predominates the school culture,” said Susan Eaton, a Harvard professor who specializes in school equity. “It’s no longer black kids going to a white school, or vice versa, but an inclusive, diverse school-wide identity.”
Professor Keels, in a phone interview, said that neighborhood public schools must promote themselves better in order to draw in middle-class families that might otherwise choose to send their kids elsewhere. In the past, other strategies to desegregate urban schools such as Supreme Court-ordered busing in the 1970s, were met with strong opposition from white middle-class residents.
The idealistic view of sending your child to a neighborhood school as a civic duty has been lost, Keels said. Wealthier parents see school choice as their top priority, often resulting in students attending schools in different neighborhoods even with a successful traditional public school in their area.
“If kids grow up in their neighborhood school together, they have a much deeper appreciation for their neighborhood’s socioeconomic differences,” she said. “Treating neighborhood schools as a public good builds cohesion and benefits the community as a whole.”
After experiencing the loss of the “public good,” Marlece Turner has joined del Pielago and Empower DC, along with other parents affected by the school closures, in bringing a lawsuit against the city, claiming the school closings were a form of racial and socioeconomic discrimination.
The claims, del Pielago said, are representative of the issues facing urban school districts nationwide. In a battle over urban educational influence, he said, communities negatively impacted by gentrification need to “fight … displacement and disenfranchisement.”
“This is not about my son,” Turner said. “This is about all the kids in the city.”