Education is often regarded as a primary means of social mobility in the United States. This disregards that some children have opportunities to top schools, while others do not have this advantage. The opportunity to attend high-achieving schools depends on what kind of neighborhood a family lives in. Most of these schools reside in affluent neighborhoods, so only children whose families can purchase expensive housing are about to attend; therefore segregating children by economic status. By integrating low-income housing into wealthy areas, it can improve children of low-income’s opportunities for economic mobility and help stop future poverty by providing them with a higher-achieving school. Montgomery County, Maryland has implemented integrated zoning plans that provide an example for other counties struggling with segregation in schools, such as Hartford County, Connecticut. Communities, low-income families, and students benefit from economically integrated neighborhoods and schools.
The Century Foundation study, Housing Policy Is School Policy, conducted by Heather Schwartz of the RAND Corporation, explores the effects of two educational reform strategies implemented by Montgomery County, Maryland. To date, these strategies have exhibited encouraging results for their district public schools—results so promising that the schools are nationally acclaimed for both their academic excellence and equity in education (Schwartz 14).
One of the educational reform strategies entailed investing extra resources into approximately sixty of the district’s “most disadvantaged” elementary schools—regarded as being part of the “red zone” (the remaining 131 more “advantaged” schools are deemed as belonging to the “green zone”). The improvements would include full-day kindergarten, a reduction in class sizes, a greater emphasis on literacy and math, and extra professional development to the teachers (Schwartz 14)
The other strategy implemented by the county is an “inclusionary zoning” housing policy. First employed in the mid-1970s, the policy has enabled children of low-income families in public housing to attend the more-affluent “green zone” (higher-scoring) district schools (Schwartz 15). The housing policy requires developers of large subdivisions to reserve 12 to 15% of units for less affluent families. Additionally, the public housing authority is able to buy up to one-third of the apartment units (Schwartz 15).
The study follows the academic progress of 850 elementary school students living in public housing between 2001 and 2007 in Montgomery County. These children came from some of the most impoverished families—the average income was $21,000—and approximately 72% of the children were African American (Schwartz 16).
The Effects of “Inclusionary Zoning” (Economic Integration)
The graph below illustrates the average math performance of children in public housing that attended Montgomery County’s “green zone” schools from 2001 to 2007 (Schwartz 18). As made evident by the graph, after two years in the district, children in public housing performed comparably on standardized math tests despite the poverty level of the respective schools. However, by the fifth year, considerable statistical differences (p < 0.05) arose between the performance levels of the children that attended the most affluent schools and those that attended the moderate-poverty schools (Schwartz 19). Most significantly, by the seventh year, children that attended the most affluent schools performed approximately eight normal curve equivalent (NCE) points higher than children that attended the higher-poverty district schools (Schwartz 19).
The Effects of Allocating Resources to “Red Zone” Schools
As previously stated, the Montgomery County school district divided its 131 respective elementary schools into two zones—the “red zone” and the “green zone”—in 2000. Approximately one half of the district’s students attend the “red zone” elementary schools, while the other half attend the “green zone” elementary schools. During 2001 to 2007 (the years this study was conducted), the district invested greatly into improving the “red zone” schools. These improvements entailed “extend(ing) kindergarten from half- to full-day, reduce class sizes from 25 to 17 in kindergarten and first grade, provide one hundred hours of additional professional development to red zone teachers, and introduce a literacy curriculum intended to bring disadvantaged students up to level by third grade” (Schwartz 23).
The graph to the right shows the average reading scores of the students that attend the “green zone” and “red zone” schools, and the graph in the previous section shows average math scores (Schwartz 24). As illustrated, by the end of the study, the children who attended “green zone” schools significantly outperformed their peers that attended the “red zone” schools—approximately nine points higher in math and eight points higher in reading. This is most interesting, because at the beginning of the study, both groups of students started out with relatively similar achievement levels (Schwartz 24).
So, what have we learned here?
Montgomery county realized that in order to improve their schools, solely giving schools more funding and resources does not help. Schools cannot have concentrated poverty within their classroom walls, because that limits their access to parental involvement, retaining prepared teachers and administrators, and ultimately giving students a reliably advantageous education. By economically integrating housing, Montgomery county has provided an example for school districts–such as Hartford’s– that are attempting to improve school quality through means of desegregation.
Segregation in Connecticut
Connecticut has a large wealth disparity (the highest income per capita in the United States, but also has 3 of the 20 poorest cities in the united states). The more affluent residents in Connecticut drive up real estate costs, leaving little affordable housing for the poor (Fink). Although 10% of housing stock must be affordable in Connecticut municipalities, only 31 out of 169 have 10% or more of their housing stock is affordable. This large percentage of areas with low amounts of affordable housing stock creates isolated pockets of extreme poverty. With segregated neighborhoods, comes segregated schools, a problem that Montgomery county also encountered. The schools within large areas of poverty become the lower achieving schools, and the schools with wealthy attendees are the highest achieving schools in the state. This segregation creates a difference in opportunity that many Connecticut residents protest about. Certain wealthy communities, such as those in the surrounding Hartford area have the resources and “pathways to opportunity” needed for an individual to succeed and achieve social mobility in modern day society, whereas others do not. These opportunities start at age five–a child’s first day in kindergarden–and if they are placed in a high achieving school, their prospects for a better future are much higher than those children placed in low-achieving schools. Due to this difference in opportunity, Connecticut citizens want change. Hartford has tried many different programs to try and give its students more opportunities; however, their attempts have only been temporary solutions that merely brush the surface of the underlying problem.
Hartford’s Attempt at School Integration
Hartford has tried many solutions to give students in the area more choices on where to attend school. Future students can apply to magnet schools, charter schools, and any other public schools they would like to attend, within Hartford or in the suburbs. Instead of integrating housing, Hartford metropolitan area decided to try and just integrate schooling, by busing children to the schools they wish to apply, and going home to their segregated communities after. This solution is not as promising as Montgomery County’s housing integration plan for many reasons. First, students still remain widely segregated since the demand for schools outside of Hartford’s public schools is much higher than the number of students suburban schools are willing to take, and the number of students that magnet and charter schools have space for. This leaves many students as “losers” in this system because after applying to more integrated or better performing schools, they still remain in segregated and/or low-performing schools. In addition to this, those students who do get into alternative school choices often have a long bus ride to their respective school. This not only is hard for the student to bus a long way every day, but also creates a divide within the school between those students who have to bus a long way and those who can walk or take a short bus ride. As Heather Schwartz says, “housing policy is school policy”, where poor students who attend an affluent school and live in an affluent neighborhood do better than those who just attend an affluent school. So, although Hartford has made some attempts to integrate their schools, they are far away from their potential of a more equal school system. This will not happen until children of different racial and economic backgrounds can not just have the possible option of going to school outside of their district, but have the definite future of attending a school with a diverse student body consisting of kids from their neighborhood.
Could Montgomery County Provide a Model for Hartford County?
According to David Rusk’s Commentary on Schwartz’ article on Montgomery, “Region-wide inclusionary zoning policies…would produce major change”. Although creating inclusionary zoning is not an easy policy to enact, it is a clear, permanent solution for counties that wish to improve integration of their community and their schools. In Hartford, they have gone a voluntary route in their integration efforts: children and their families can apply to the schools they want, and surrounding suburbs can choose to allow as many or as few inner-city students as they want into their schools. This voluntary system does not solve the deeply rooted problem of segregation within the surrounding community. Some even argue that it exacerbates this problem, arguing that typically those with more resources are the families that are more likely to apply to different schools, whereas those who do not apply are the families with less means to do so (Winterbottom). By implementing inclusionary zoning and attempting to gentrify some of Hartford to integrate the metropolitan area will create an environment that not only integrates children in school, but out of school as well. Schwartz highlights this out of school influence as an extremely critical part of the development of a student and their education. This policy is the answer for Hartford’s metropolitan area; however, the actual implementation would be difficult. Most of Hartford’s suburban towns remain under 10% for a reason–most of their residents have a “not in my backyard” prospective, routinely rejecting integration of affordable housing in their area, and even proposals to just economically integrate their some of their low-poverty schools.
Montgomery’s plan is an extensive measure to reform schools, but also very successful. Hartford county needs a proposition to keep Hartford moving forward in its plans to integrate schools. The programs that Hartford already implemented have helped give children more options; however, these options are a small improvement. Montgomery provides an example of integration that areas such as Hartford should aim to strive for in the future. Instead of dumping money and reforming poor-income heavy schools or building new schools and seeing minimal positive impact, Hartford should follow Montgomery’s steps and focus on integrating the county, and inturn integrating its schools–this would show better improvements in students. By implementing a desegregation plan in Hartford, the city and its surrounding area would not only improve its schools, but also, having a metropolitan area that is more integrated is a positive outcome by itself.
About the Authors:
Mary Daly is a sophomore at Trinity College from Madison, Wisconsin. She is majoring in Urban Studies and minoring in Hispanic Studies and Economics.
Amanda Gurren is a sophomore at Trinity College from Weston, Connecticut. She is double majoring in Urban Studies and Sociology.
Fink, David, Christina Rubenstein, and Amneris Torres. “Housing in CT 2010: The Latest Measures of Affordability.”Partnership for Strong Communities 1 (2010): n. pag.www.ctpartnershiphousing.org. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.
David, Rusk. “‘Housing Policy is School Policy’: A Commentary.” Finding Common Ground: Coordinating Housing and Education Policy to Promote Integration 1 (2010): 21-30. Print.
Schwartz, Heather. “Housing Policy is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland.” Finding Common Ground: Coordinating Housing and Education Policy to Promote Integration 1 (2010): 15-20. Print.
Winterbottom, Nancy. “Hollowing Out City Schools: It’s Wrong to Blame Teachers and ‘Failing Schools,’ When Flight to Magnet and Charter Schools Leaves Neediest Students Behind (op-ed Essay).” Hartford Courant, March 14, 2010.