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Education

Rich Kid, Poor Kid: How Mixed Neighborhoods Could Save America's Schools

In a former Atlanta slum, low- and middle-income families now live side by side -- and send their children to the same excellent school. Is this surprising model too good to be true?

During the half century that Theresa Cartwright has lived in the East Lake neighborhood of Atlanta, she has twice seen the area's schools undergo a complete transformation. In the 1960s, black families like her own moved to the neighborhood's Craftsman bungalows and a new public housing project, driving out their white, middle-class neighbors. When she was in second grade, her elementary school was all black. By the time she was in sixth grade, the projects were so violent they had earned the name "Little Vietnam" and her mother refused to let her go to the failing local middle school.

Instead, she signed up to be bused to the white, upper-class neighborhood of Buckhead, in North Atlanta, where her mother knew the schools would be better.

 

Cartwright, now 51, went on to college, while many of her former classmates who remained in the struggling East Lake schools ended up on public assistance. She could have stayed away, but ultimately, her roots in the neighborhood drew her back. In the 1990s, Cartwright bought her own house in East Lake - a decision that, in retrospect, seems surprisingly prescient.

By 2006, when Cartwright was ready to enroll her own son, Collin Wilson, now 16, in middle school, the neighborhood had changed so dramatically that Cartwright pulled him out of a private school to attend Charles Drew, a public school down the street. Drew had become one of the highest performing schools in the city, and Cartwright knew it well because she worked as an operations manager there.

Instead of attacking poverty, urban blight, and failing schools in isolated efforts, activists took on all of these issues as one big problem.
 

Unlike most charters in urban areas, Drew Charter is not all black or Hispanic, nor is it all poor. It is, instead, a demonstration of a novel concept in the modern education reform movement: trying to close the achievement gap between the poor and affluent by bringing them together to share their neighborhoods and their classrooms.

Efforts to rejuvenate urban neighborhoods and fix public schools have historically followed separate paths. As buses began rolling across color lines in the 1970s to desegregate public schools, they crisscrossed acutely segregated public housing projects and suburbs.

In the 1990s, education reformers began trying to lift the performance of public schools with racially homogenous, high-poverty populations. Charter schools -- public schools run by private organizations -- became the hallmark of this new approach. But because many charters concentrate on educating the poorest of the poor, they tended to exacerbate racial and economic separation in the public schools.

"There's been little effort overall to link housing policy to education policy," says Jonathan Rothwell, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. "It's a major missing component to any effort to solve this country's education problem."

 

Instead of attacking poverty, urban blight, and failing schools in isolated efforts, a group of community activists and philanthropists in Atlanta took on all of these issues as one big problem. "We know that concentrating poverty doesn't work. We know you get bad outcomes when you do that," says Carol Naughton, the former director of the East Lake Foundation, which orchestrated the area's revitalization beginning in 1995.

The Charles Drew Charter School has been combined with federally subsidized housing for impoverished tenants with market-rate apartments that attract university students -- some from nearby Georgia State in downtown Atlanta -- young professionals and, increasingly, middle-class families. A new grocery store, a YMCA, two preschool programs, a bank, a farmer's market, a community garden and two golf courses -- one public and one private -- serve the immediate neighborhood. Most of the services were brought in through intensive campaigning by the East Lake Foundation.

The transformation has been, for the most part, a great success. Crime rates, which were sky high during the 1990s, have plummeted. The average income of subsidized tenants is still well below the federal poverty line, but it rose from about $4,500 in the mid-nineties to nearly $16,000 a decade later. The racial composition of the surrounding area has changed, too. In one census tract encompassing East Lake, the percentage of whites rose from 14 percent to nearly a third between 2000 and 2010.

And, as measured by state test scores, Drew Charter School has jumped from the worst in the city to the fourth best. The school is 93 percent African-American. Next year, school officials predict that about a third of its students will be drawn from middle-class families, up from less than a quarter in the 2004-2005 school year. Back then, the school was 100 percent African-American.

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