A Unique Opportunity for Integration, Inclusion, and Equity

Written By Kfir Mordechay

The gentrification of urban neighborhoods across the country has attracted notice since at least the 1970s. However, in the most recent decade in the “return to the cities,” gentrification has become much more common.

By some estimates, since 2000 nearly 20 percent of neighborhoods in the 50 largest cities have experienced gentrification. In many of the nation’s largest cities, from New York to Los Angeles, upper-middle class families are moving in. This pattern had long been unthinkable since the flight of the white and middle class from central cities during suburbanization in the second half of the twentieth century.

Regardless of whether this trend signals a long-term resurgence of cities or a short-term upsurge attributable to millennials being attracted to cities as a combination of generational preferences and the slowdown in the suburban housing market, it carries potentially significant implications for urban school systems. If the Millennials and young professionals who make up a primary element of this urban renewal trend choose to reinvest in city schools, they could ease the severe economic and racial segregation that is ubiquitous to urban schools. Since racial and economic segregation are linked to a variety of negative academic and social outcomes, the desegregation of communities and schools should be a policy goal.

While in many cases gentrification stops at the schoolhouse door, in our recent study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project of Washington DC’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods we found that as many of the city’s neighborhoods have become more racially diverse, racial school segregation has declined. While, high levels of racial segregation remain, this is a promising development since desegregated schools are strongly linked with numerous positive outcomes, including higher academic achievement, a reduction in prejudice and stereotypes, higher levels of civic engagement, and a increased likelihood of living and working in diverse contexts later in life.

In addition, we found that schools in the area are not losing enrollment, as often happens when families of color are replaced by gentrifier families with fewer children and less interest in public schools. In fact, DC schools in gentrifying areas saw significant growth in enrollment between 2000 and 2014, with African American enrollment up 72%, White enrollment, though still small, increased more than tenfold, and the Hispanic enrollment tripled.

These findings suggest that the city and its school district have a unique opportunity to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families willing to bet on public schools before this newfound diversity in their classrooms disappears. The challenge requires urban and education policies that underscore the deep and fundamental relationship between housing and schools.

In terms of housing, the Departments of Housing and Urban Development recently published a report discussing how gentrifying neighborhoods can manage change in ways that keep communities inclusive and affordable. These recommendations include preserving existing affordable housing through rental assistance demonstrations that could support long-term residents, housing choice vouchers, preservation-friendly incentives, and encouraging further development.

On the school level, conscious integration policy should include programs that welcome new-comer families into schools in the gentrifying areas, involve them actively, and simultaneously make needed changes in curriculum, teacher training, and methods so that all children benefit.

Leadership in Denver Public Schools in Colorado can serve as a model for how to start thinking about opportunity and long-term sustainability within the context of major shifts in demographics and resulting changes in residential patterns. The Denver Board of Education recently established a citywide “Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative” with the task of developing recommendations to increase integration across the schools which include, quantitative targets for school integration, partnerships with transportation and housing authorities, and community outreach.

Despite over half a century of research that points toward integration as the best way to improve the life chances of poor children and children of color, policy makers have for the most part abandoned this aspect of schooling. Attracting families in gentrifying communities to the local schools can potentially create oases of integration. These families can increase support for the schools, foster more stable neighborhoods, and create peer groups that can generate educational gains for poor children and provide numerous positive outcomes for all children. However, successful management of the gentrification process is essential to ensure that it creates inclusive communities rather than displacing low-income residents and creating bubbles of white affluence.

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Kfir Mordechay is an Assistant Professor at Pepperdine University and a researcher with the UCLA Civil Rights Project.