Mixed-income communities best bet to improve schools

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They’ve moved in

In the last five years, legions of young professionals have moved into the city, buying pricey loft condominiums and townhouses for $500,000 and more. A boon, no doubt, for developers, for landlords who benefit from rising rents and for city coffers, which swell as property taxes go up.

So far, though, they have not been a boon for the school system: When their children are ready for school, they leave. That’s what Web Site Editor Dan Weissmann found when he looked at population and school enrollment trends in the city’s most rapidly gentrifying areas, mostly in Lake View, West Town and the Near South Side.

Between 1995 and 2000, enrollment in public elementary schools dropped 18 percent in those areas, while it rose 13 percent in the rest of the city. Some of the enrollment decline in gentrifying areas can be attributed to fewer children living there. But Weissmann’s analysis found a disproportionate drop in the number of 5- to 13-year-old children living in gentrifying areas compared to elsewhere in the city.

That comes as no surprise to real estate brokers or market researchers. Young professionals moving into gentrifying areas “have no intention of sending their kids to the public schools,” says Tracy Cross, a real estate consultant who studied why upper-income families leave.

The Chicago Board of Education, however, is not taking no for answer. In an attempt to attract more middle- and upper-income families, it has spent millions to build college preparatory high schools, has made preschool available at a modest cost, and has made it easier for families who live near magnet schools, many of which are in gentrifying neighborhoods, to get their children into them.

That’s more than it’s done for the children of families pushed out by gentrification. Those children wind up in overcrowded schools or are sometimes bused back to their old neighborhoods where enrollment is declining.

The process is hard on the system, which spends more on busing, as well as on the kids. Greater support for mixed-income housing could ease such hardships. A concerted effort to keep lower-income residents from being swept out of gentrifying areas could have a number of positive effects on schools. Enrollment would be more stable, busing costs would decline and student mobility rates would fall as fewer children and families were displaced by changes in the housing market.

Then the city and schools need to be deliberate and out front in promoting a mix in the schools as well. As current and former battles at a number of neighborhood schools have shown, middle- and upper-income families are reluctant to send their children to school with children from low-income backgrounds. It’s unlikely to happen naturally.

As courts have closed out desegregation orders, some cities—such as Cambridge, Mass., Raleigh, N.C., and LaCrosse, Wis.—have begun integrating schools by income instead of race. If these small cities can do this systemwide, surely Chicago can focus on a few neighborhoods to experiment with solutions and create a model.

ABOUT US In a Jan. 30 follow-up to President Bush’s State of the Union address, CNN featured our findings on the negative impact of high school choice in Chicago, the subject of our December issue. CNN family and education correspondent Kathy Slobogin interviewed Catalyst Associate Editor Elizabeth Duffrin about the data and Principal James Breashears of Robeson High School about his school’s struggles.