Alexis Farmer: Schools as community spaces

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 - 5:37pm

In Detroit, 195 public schools have been closed since 2000. But the mass liquidation of neighborhood schools is not unique to Detroit. Several urban communities are restructuring their public education systems to suit the needs of changing demographics. The rapid pace of school closures raises questions about its impacts on neighborhoods and their residents. Research suggests that closing neighborhood schools increases the likelihood that neighborhoods around them will deteriorate. In conjunction with challenging neighborhood conditions, poorly performing schools accelerate neighborhood decline by hindering the preservation of stable residential communities. With a loss of a community anchor, school employees are displaced, property values decrease and businesses lack incentives to develop in neighborhoods.  

Detroit has a number of vacant school buildings scattered around the city. According to a 2015 report by a public data company called Loveland, “Out of the 195 schools that closed between 2000 and 2015, 81 of the buildings are currently vacant and unused.” Vacant school buildings can be locations for crime, such as scrapping or drug dealing. As large architectural structures dilapidate, their presences subtract from the aesthetic of a neighborhood. Instead of closing these structures, Detroit Public Schools should consider repurposing school buildings to develop mixed-income housing or maintain operations of the school, and increase their usage as community-centered buildings.

Instead of spending exorbitant amounts of money on demolishing architecturally sound school buildings, the city can encourage new and mixed-purpose buildings. Some closed schools have been redeveloped into residential apartments, movie theaters and churches. The city should encourage housing developers to create mixed-income housing structures within vacant school buildings. Mixed-income housing increases benefits and resources within schools and ultimately improves student achievement. Neighborhoods with mixed-housing prices are three times more likely to have highly rated schools than affordable neighborhoods.

Mixed-income housing, however, can be used as a veil for gentrification, and only serve the poor who are “most likely to succeed.” Detroit City Council should invent specific protections, such as low-interest mortgages and down payment assistance for specific income brackets, in housing developments that surround neighborhood schools.

“Education policy is constrained by housing policy,” claims Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. “It is not possible to desegregate schools without desegregating both low-income and affluent neighborhoods.” Schools are influential institutions in determining where people live.

A 2015 study administered by the National Association of Realtors Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends found the quality of the school district was the sixth-most-important factor affecting neighborhood choice for homebuyers. Researchers found a direct correlation between school quality and home values: Schools receive a substantial portion of their funding from local property taxes, thus, highly valued homes are critical to supplementing school funding.

The disparities between Detroit’s and its suburban counterparts’ home values is stark — the average home value in Bloomfield Hills is an estimated $400,000; in Detroit, the average home value is just under $40,000. “As a result, Detroit must levy a property tax 10 times higher than Bloomfield Hills to raise the same amount, per home, for a school maintenance or improvement project,” MLive reported. As Detroit resurges from financial troubles, city leaders must make it a priority to conjointly create quality schools and build solid districts to attract more residents to populate the neighborhoods.

Schools are prominent community anchors, and when their facilities are accessible to the surrounding community, their public utility and value increases. Twenty-one DPS schools have been named 12/7 Community Schools, which are schools open beyond the traditional school day hours to offer services such as child/elder care, job skills training, financial literacy training, food distribution and medical care. Facilities that accommodate community members and expand opportunities for students provide a positive impact on the neighborhood as a whole. For example, Priest Elementary-Middle School is a 12/7 community school that hosts a Parent Resource Center: a community gathering space with computers, phones, small libraries, play areas for children, workshops, GEP support, book support, college information, etc.

Homeowners would value amenities schools can provide, such as community spaces, libraries, swimming pools and playgrounds. Open school buildings facilitate democracy because community members can decide the best uses for the buildings. Schools can provide a sense of community ownership and can encourage community members to be more invested in the quality of the educational activities for students. With authentic parent and community engagement in school facilities, there is an equal stake in ensuring school facilities are maintained and accessible to the public. 12/7 community schools are examples of a best practices approach that enhances school value to the neighborhood.

Revitalizing Detroit’s landscapes will require a commitment to providing quality education and living conditions for students and their families across the city. Detroit’s past economic, political and social history has made meaningful development difficult. Racial tensions, population declines and restrained budgets have challenged the city to transform its school system and its operations, and envision a new city design. With new leadership and restored power to residents, Detroit neighborhoods and the public school system have the potential to revive Detroit’s urban vibrancy.

Urban planning and educational policy leaders can and should work in tandem with each other to streamline neighborhood revitalization. Community-based education models can enhance student achievement and improve neighborhood conditions. Preserving Detroit’s neighborhood schools ensures their presence as valuable community establishments for all members.

A school-centered community revitalization effort depends on safe and affordable housing that is attractive to families with children, retains current families and improves the academic quality of neighborhood schools to sustain Detroit’s renewal. A close partnership between school leadership and city planners can create school-centered communities across the city that will transform the quality of our urban schools and communities.  

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.