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How mixed income neighborhoods could save schools

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 10:10 p.m. MST

Families who live in public housing have little choice about where to send their children to school. Low-income schools serve low-income areas. These schools must deal with a host of problems, including limited resources and inexperienced teachers. Some experts argue that the best way to close the achievement gap between the rich and poor is to do away with "rich" schools and "poor" schools.

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Anna Chan of Dallas was a single mom, worked full time and struggling to put herself though college. The cost of higher education put a strain on her already tight budget. To make things work financially, she decided to rent an apartment in a low-income area. It meant Chan's 5-year-old son, Justice, would begin school at one of the lowest performing public elementary schools in the state. Because Justice was young, and knew how to read going into kindergarten, Chan thought a few years at a low-performing school wouldn't be too detrimental.

By the end of the school year, she saw firsthand the impact of attending a low-income, low-performing school. Justice was disengaged, struggled with writing and mathematics and had a negative attitude about learning.

Concerned about the long-term consequences of attending this school, Chan moved mountains to enroll her son in a better-performing public school. Though it meant driving her son almost 60 miles every day to and from school, Chan says it has been worth it. Her son is doing well in school, has joined school clubs and has made friends who expose him to a range of possibilities that would never be on his radar had he stayed at his old school.

Unlike the Chans, most low-income families don't have many options when it comes to choosing schools for their children. School boundaries are determined by school districts, according to Greg Duncan, professor of education at UC Irvine.

In many cases, the lines are drawn in such a way that all the low-income children in the district are put in one school and the middle- and high-income children in others. This economic segregation has been linked to huge gaps in school performance on academic achievement tests.

A recent Brookings Institute study shows that the average low-income student, one who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunches, attends a school that scores in the 42nd percentile on state tests. The average middle- or high-income student, on the other hand, attends a school whose average state test scores are in the 61st percentile.

Although policymakers and educators are trying to reduce income-based achievement gaps, new evidence suggests the spread between the rich and the poor is growing. Since the 1960s, the achievement gap between high-income and low-income students has grown by 40 percent, according to a 2011 study by Sean Reardon of Stanford University.

Discussions about closing this gap typically include reducing class sizes, improving teacher quality and setting higher expectations for students. But one of the most effective solutions to this problem — finding ways to bring economically diverse groups of students together in the same classrooms — gets little play in education policy circles, according to a new study by Heather Scwartz of the RAND Corporation.

Economic integration

Montgomery County, Maryland, ranks among the top 20 wealthiest counties in the United States and has the 16th largest school district in the nation. The zoning regulations there require real estate developers to set aside a portion of the homes they build for public housing. As a result, families with incomes below the poverty line have been able to live in Montgomery County's affluent neighborhoods and send their children to schools where the vast majority of students come from middle- or upper-class families.

Given these unique circumstances, Montgomery County is an ideal place to study economic integration. Schwartz followed 850 low-income students who lived in public housing in affluent neighborhoods in Montgomery County. Schwartz tracked their performances and compared them to low-income children who did not attend integrated schools.

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