How Compatible Is Urban School Reform With The Neighborhood Revitalization?

How compatible is urban school reform with the neighborhood revitalization thrust, and how can revitalization efforts in urban communities support the work of the public school? Three perspectives frame the movement toward coordinated children’s services: a new sense of “ecology” that school, family, and community are vitally interdependent; a recognition of the need to build the “social capital” of families and communities; and a call to end the extensive fragmentation in service delivery. The community revitalization approach focuses on family self-sufficiency and independence through employment, a renewed encouragement of private investment in urban communities, and a locally or grassroots-driven strategy of action.


Outreach to children and families is by no means incompatible with notions of community development through enterprise. Nevertheless, there are basic ingredients of the approaches that differ. The fundamental strength of coordinated services approaches is that they directly provide for the basic needs of low-income families. However, direct service programs also bear a history of “top-down” execution and professional-centeredness, rather than a focus on community needs and leadership. This history has meant that the call for parental involvement, long recognized as essential to children’s successful learning, has not translated into families being in comprehensive and equal partnership with schools.


The strengths of urban renewal initiatives include incentives toward self-reliance, labor, and local development, and a focus on the broad-based issue of economics. Critics of market-driven concepts point out, however, that it is problematic to ask those with the least capital and fewest institutional resources to revitalize their own communities, and that market forces typically have not successfully gathered “have’s” and “have-not’s” together to address the needs of the community.


Alone, neither coordinated services nor plans for economic revitalization will significantly improve the learning and healthy development of children and youth in the inner cities. The various strengths and weaknesses of the two approaches should lead policymakers toward neighborhood revitalization approaches which emphasize both professionalized delivery of services to families side-by-side with economic development. The following are suggestions toward merging the strengths of both approaches:


Services to families and children must develop with the full involvement of parents and the community. There must be continued movement toward empowered, co-equal participation of families with professionals in governance and development of schools and the neighborhood. At the same time, the schools and children’s learning must remain central issues and must not be sidelined as expected by-products of employed families and improved economic conditions.


– The local school should be recognized as a tangible part of the “basic industry” of the city, with economic and community development responsibilities that go well beyond mere service delivery. It may now behoove the public school to go beyond its traditions of child learning and development, toward a more broadly-conceived role as an active player in the much larger, full-scale development of its community. More than a “service” outreach center, the local school could become a cooperating “investor,” maintaining its emphasis on the 3R’s while working extensively with community development agencies and other centers for the family service, such as neighborhood businesses, religious institutions, and civic and governmental agencies. The school’s role as an employer and purchaser of goods/services must be reevaluated as well. Every school contributes to its community through, for example, the provision of lunches, health examinations, and school-age day care. Considering the school’s own accumulation of professionally credentialed “social capital,” there tends to be only a minimal understanding among educators that they too are part of a community-based enterprise.


– Powerful neighborhood revitalization strategies proceed from the recognition of the interconnections between economic and social, individual and collective, and adult and child well-being. Market solutions assume that people will respond to incentives and utilize opportunities. However, among populations that have long been excluded from the established economy, such assumptions may not be warranted, and the development strand of reform must take these factors into account. Conversely, initiatives for full-service schools must remain aware of the incentive structures—i.e., children are unlikely to remain in school when they doubt its efficacy to help them, seeing that few around them are able to obtain regular work—which vitally affect the schools’ own success.


What do these ideas mean for school reform? Schools might tackle issues such as employment options and training, a neighborhood’s attractiveness to investment capital, and adult education, as well as partner with both family “welfare” forces and economic institutions including banks, retail businesses, and insurers. Public schools could be transformed into “enterprise schools,” joining with an array of other neighborhood and city institutions in the development and regeneration of the school’s total local ecology and the city itself.


Megan Wilson is a teacher, life strategist, successful entrepreneur, inspirational keynote speaker and founder of Megan champions a radical rethink of our school systems; she calls on educators to teach both intuition and logic to cultivate creativity and create bold thinkers.



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