Neighborhood schools quiz (part two)

I wrote a post last week on Neighborhood Schools, in no small part because I think the term is an open vessel in which people place widely divergent beliefs about what is important in public education.

Every designed system has virtues and errors.  We enroll children in public schools through a system based primarily on location: you default into the school close to where you live.  This has a number of positive benefits – among them an automatic social network and heightened sense of community.  But it also has significant faults, primarily that our schools are far more likely to suffer — and all too rarely transcend — the economic and social segregation of our worst neighborhoods.

In the discussion over neighborhood schools, I continue to be discomforted that locality is automatically viewed as virtuous.  Where one lives is highly influenced by income.  A system based on geographic proximity currently denies most of Denver’s underserved students access to a good school, while at the same time rewarding many of their most privileged peers.  There is a reason why houses in the best school districts sell at a premium.  Yet the same sentiment that would never tolerate outright purchase of admission for one’s child in a top public school becomes oddly oblivious when this transaction is masked by real estate.

Personally, I believe schools have multiplier effects: good schools (and student academic growth is my measure of quality) attract families and instill a sense of accomplishment and pride.  Bad schools drive families out of neighborhoods and can create and perpetuate a culture of failure and low esteem. Without doubt, the most difficult combination to find is a good school in a lousy neighborhood. To my mind, these are the schools that are the most valuable.  They are also the most scarce. And all too rarely do they fit into the standard definition of a neighborhood school.

So, to paraphrase, what do we talk about when we talk about neighborhood schools?

To me, a critical distinction of a neighborhood school is that the neighborhood’s children all have equal opportunity to attend.  Selective admissions schools (and programs) generally don’t meet this criteria (although some try much harder than others).  If you are choosing your students, it’s a lot harder to claim you are serving the whole neighborhood.

Are magnets neighborhood schools?   Some certainly try to emphasize the community aspects, with varying degrees of success.  But I just don’t think one can make a rational argument that a selective admissions program is a neighborhood school. If you choice into a school that selects its students, does the proximity to your house change the nature of that choice?  Is choicing into a school 10 blocks away a different distinction than a school 10 miles away?

Are charters neighborhood schools?  With open-enrollment policies standard, several are, and some clearly are not.  Merely being open-enrollment does not ensure that one is a neighborhood school.  To claim that charters, as a category, either are or are not neighborhood schools as is both irrational and impractical.  Likewise, both racial diversity and quality can either be found in abundance or scarcity at a neighborhood school. There is no fair claim either for or against these criteria simply by claiming the mantle of a neighborhood school.

The discussion about what is and what is not a neighborhood school — and perhaps more importantly whether such schools add or detract from public education — gets even harder at the specific school level. To return to the examples in my earlier post:

I find it extremely difficult to argue that either Polaris or DSA qualify as neighborhood schools.  I am equally unable to fathom any reason why they should not continue to operate exactly as they are. Both are excellent schools, meeting the needs of communities that are not defined primarily by location.  Both are strong examples that the criteria that might define a neighborhood school are not the sole province of success.

Bromwell is clearly a neighborhood school, and an excellent one.  The difficulty here is that most Denver residents cannot afford the neighborhood.  Neighborhoods are often exclusive — many more so than their valued institutions.

Manual is on its third (or more) iteration of neighborhood school. Just by itself, it is evidence of the breath of distinctions inherent in the category.

For open-enrollment charters (excuse the redundancy), KIPP clearly fits the definition of a neighborhood school.  In comparison, DSST less so — it is far more diverse than its immediate neighborhood, and offers a targeted curriculum (particularly in high school) that does not appeal to everyone.  But these are virtues, not faults.

DCIS is a magnet, yet it strongly believes in and promotes community.  DCIS is working as hard as any school in the city to create an intentional culture  – yet I doubt the community to which it aspires exists in any one neighborhood.  To become a neighborhood school would extinguish its very purpose.

One could make the argument that any one of these schools is outside the term as it is generally used – particularly in this election mini-season.  Yet these schools are some of the brightest spots in Denver’s public education landscape, and many have far more students interested in attending than there are spaces.  What does it say when so many families opt out of the confines of their neighborhood school in search of something else?

Parents and educators all rightly believe that every child is different.  Yet for too long we placed all our hopes for the successful education of a wide range of kids, often with very different needs and learning styles, into the same single place.

In the fervent and important dialogue about the future of public education, neighborhood schools — however defined — can rightly take their place among the different ways we think about schools best serving our students, but their rightful place is next to other types of schools, not above them.

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