Showing posts with label schools. Show all posts
Showing posts with label schools. Show all posts

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Country Chic, Part II – Transforming Rural Character into a Hot Commodity.

In part one of this essay, I explored how the successful business, Trader’s Point Creamery, has become an archetype for the character of the community of Trader’s Point, a large spread of rolling wooded countryside still sitting squarely within Indianapolis city limits. This is a part of the city that, while affluent, has relinquished lot of its attractiveness to the suburbs, where the cost of living is lower but public services are often superior. Trader’s Point is certainly not an urban neighborhood, but it also isn’t really suburban or even exurban in character. What is it about the area makes a business like the Creamery so popular, even as homes here often remain on the market far longer than they would immediately outside of Marion County?

Trader’s Point Creamery, by emphasizing its 100% organic, grass-fed product line, has appealed to the well-heeled, educated, fundamentally urban populace nearby that defies the farm’s rural surroundings. The area’s idyllic setting is more distinctive than it otherwise might be, precisely because it sits in the boundaries of a large city. Though a dairy farm could easily occupy a plot of land anywhere in Indiana, the affluent clientele nearby has enhanced the likelihood of the Creamery’s success. In spite of the idyllic setting of country estates nestled on gentle slopes, Trader’s Point rests in a part of Indianapolis that continually loses out to neighboring suburbs such as Zionsville, where the school system has been ranked among the top ten in the nation.

Having scrutinized Trader’s Point carefully enough, I now can boldly make what may seem to be my flimsiest association yet: a comparison to the state of Vermont. Only a few stretches of Indiana—particularly those in the southwest part of the state—can claim the majestic topography that pervades in the Green Mountain State. Though a bit of an anomaly in central Indiana, an enterprise such as Trader’s Point Creamery would fit in perfectly in New England’s most landlocked corner. Vermont operates like a statewide rural heritage corridor, from its outlawing of billboards along interstates to its numerous microfarms tucked in the valleys amidst muscular hills. Think of all the food products that come from Vermont. Aside from the most high profile, such as Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, the state boasts national recognition in Woodchuck Cider, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, and Cabot Creamery (“America’s Best Cheddar”), let alone all the roadside maple syrup stands. The state’s prominence as an exporter of specialty agriculture products seems all the more impressive when one considers that: 1) the state of Vermont’s population is less than the city of Indianapolis; and 2) most of the land of this sixth smallest state is horrible for growing things. Part of the reason Vermont’s hills seem so pristine is that the tree canopy conceals the remnants of abandoned farms from centuries ago, when the first New England settlers gave up on the land after learning about the fecund soils in the Midwest. A number of Indiana farmers can claim New England ancestry.

So how did Vermont achieve such a firm footing in the specialty foods market? A trip to one of the many picture-perfect towns in the state, such as Brattleboro, offers more than a hint. I haven’t come across any evidence that would suggest that Vermont has a particularly stronger Main Street Association than other states, but you would certainly think it from a visit. A disproportionate number of these towns are tourist magnets, with well-preserved architecture along the Main Streets that host a variety of shops, nearly all of which could pass as “eclectic local retail”. Brattleboro, a town of 12,000 (and the seventh largest in the state!) featured, upon my last visit, numerous art galleries, an Indian restaurant, a vendor of hemp products, and a Marxist bookstore. No, it’s not a college town. It’s also not unique to Brattleboro.

The state capital, Montpelier, is an even smaller community of only about 8,000 people—the smallest state capital in the country. No doubt it attracts a well-educated work force through the demand for skilled government jobs, but plenty of other state capitals have the same requirements, yet they cannot boast such an impeccable and visibly posh downtown: The town—calling it a city would be inaccurate under any measurement, even if it legally is one—proudly claims itself as the only state capital in the nation without a McDonald’s. I cannot recall seeing any national chains along the main street, in fact. Downtown would probably embody the quaint New England archetype, except that most places one thinks of as quaint lack Montpelier’s undercurrent of political subversion:
I’ll confess that some of this was a bit too precious for me. Is it realistic for a town this small to have street musicians, a film festival, a transit authority, and a food cooperative? Clearly it is in Vermont. (I’ll concede that Montpelier is part of the larger Montpelier-Barre Micropolitan Area of about 50,000 people, and that Barre, a similarly sized town 5 miles away, is nowhere near as prosperous, but most of the people are spread far from these two nuclei. And population within Montpelier city limits is inconceivably urbane.)

With a town like Montpelier as its capital, it should come as no surprise that Vermont’s largest city is paradise for bourgeois bohemians.
Under 40,000 people, Burlington is very much a college town, hosting the flagship campus of the University of Vermont, among others. Lake Champlain in the background of the above photo provides a clear demarcation of the western edge of town, from a variety of vantage points. My impression during my brief visit was that the city’s vibrancy betrayed its size; one could hardly tell it was so small from how many people one might see out on a Saturday morning. It remains one of the few cities that can boast a successful, fully pedestrianized Main Street. And of course such a town wouldn’t be complete without its bustling weekend farmers’ market:

This survey of Vermont is about as superficial as they come, and it admittedly leaves out some of the grittier parts: St. Johnsbury has not enjoyed the prosperity of other communities its size in the state; nor has the aforementioned Barre; and Rutland, from what I hear, has seen better days. But for an overwhelmingly rural state, in which the largest city is the smallest large city out of all fifty, Vermont possesses a streak of worldiness normally associated with urban living—and its residents have shown an uncanny ability to expand the prominence of its limited agricultural output well beyond its modest borders.

An equally facile survey of the state’s recent history provides more than enough evidence to explain how it got this way. Always the most rural state in New England, it is also among the few states to have functioned as an independent sovereign government for some time prior to admission in the union. Its population remained basically unchanging, averaging around 350,000 inhabitants, from around 1900 until 1960. Only in the swinging sixties did the state blossom in growth, reaching 600,000 shortly before the new century. More recent population estimates suggests that the growth rate has leveled off considerably. While Vermont has always allied itself with independent parties to a greater degree than most states, its national identity overwhelmingly aligned with the Republicans throughout most of the 20th century—until the population boom. In 1992, the state supported Democrat Bill Clinton (for the first time since Lyndon Johnson’s sweeping national defeat of Barry Goldwater) and it has edged further toward Democrats ever since, giving President Obama one of his strongest winning margins in the country.

It hardly takes a rocket scientist to deduce that the steady stream of newcomers to Vermont from 1960 to 1990 have influenced the state’s political culture. Many affluent New Yorkers and Bostonians, seeking a rural alternative to crime and urban gridlock, found respite in Vemont’s inexpensive verdure and settled permanently in and around the state’s numerous depressed mill towns. They brought with them prestigious degrees, hefty disposable incomes, and urban communitarianism. No doubt other NYC expatriates settled in the remote corners of upstate New York, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine. But only Vermont was so sparsely populated that a gain of 250,000 could virtually double the state’s population and formidably alter its political leanings. The state has remained racially homogeneous but has swayed its legislature toward a culture that regulates urban growth strongly while emphasizing the aesthetic integrity of its towns and small cities. The result is a state with a higher cost of living than one might expect for so little industry, but a fairly consistent identity of mountainous countryside interspersed with manicured dairy farms and tidy fields amidst the few patches of arable land.

What, one may ask, does all of this have to do with Trader’s Point in Indianapolis? Loosely speaking, Trader’s Point is the Vermont of the Indianapolis metro. Its current character is largely fueled by an urban affluent diaspora that has instilled it with a blend of prosperous farmsteads and estates, where the wealth of the proprietors largely depends on their proximity to a larger urban market. This fusion of rural and urban elite undoubtedly has helped spawn a Rural Preservation District, and it affirms the identity of a smart boutique agribusiness such as Trader’s Point Creamery. One could even argue that the character of a pristine Vermont town finds a Midwest incarnation in the picturesque suburb of Zionsville, outside Indianapolis limits immediately to the north of Trader’s Point.

By most other metrics, an analogy between Trader’s Point and Vermont is a stretch, and others could justifiably refute my argument. Vermont is a state with political autonomy, made up of multiple jurisdictions that also enjoy relative independence. Conversely, Trader’s Point has no political identity outside of the Rural Historic District and an association of neighborhoods, which proffers only a small amount of authority to community’s residents. But perhaps the biggest difference between the two is the racial and ethnic composition: Vermont to this day remains overwhelmingly white, with the race comprising almost 96% of the population according to recent Census estimates. Conversely, Trader’s Point sits within Pike Township, the northwestern corner of Indianapolis. Once a bastion of white affluence, Pike’s minority presence is significant and growing. The census tract that comprises the majority of Trader’s Point is less than 80% white, while the more densely settled southern half of the township (south of Trader’s Point) is closer to 50% minority, with a growing presence of middle and upper-middle class African Americans, Latinos, and southeast Asians, as well as recent Burmese refugees from the Karen and Chin ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township has shown evidence in recent years of a strained response to the influx of minorities and foreign-born: though the township as a whole is still majority white, the school district is not. Pike High School, once as homogeneous as the district it served, now consists of over 80% racial minorities.

With that big of a discrepancy between the racial composition of Pike Township (over 50% white) and the student body of its flagship public school (only 18% white), something is clearly amiss. A little over a decade ago, I knew people who enrolled at the school at a time when it was about 50% white; clearly that number has plunged since then. Without investigating individual student samples, one can nonetheless easily speculate that two things are happening: the white families in Traders Point and throughout Pike Township are sending their kids to private schools, or they are finding ways to “cheat” the catchment areas by placing their children’s residential address with a grandparent or cousin, so that the kids can enroll in one of the neighboring districts with superlative academic records. (Most surrounding districts—Washington Township in Indianapolis, Zionsville, Brownsburg, or Carmel—are among the top ranked in the state, if not the nation.) While it is possible that sheer racial prejudice alone is diverting many of the white families away from Pike Township schools, it is equally likely that the school’s resources or under duress due to a growing non-English speaking population, or from less affluent families in the southern part of the township—which does have some visible poverty—who may have lower academic aspirations, thereby lowering the graduation rates and mean test scores for district. Meanwhile, families with the wherewithal to send their kids to superior schools nearby will not hesitate to do so.

Thus, Trader’s Point and Pike Township are faced with a predicament. Middle and upper-middle class white residents have lost faith in the school district, which, as I have blogged about before, exerts an inordinate impact on the desirability of a location . Pike Township could find its preeminence as a wealthy corner of Indianapolis eroding if the neighboring suburbs offer more or less a similar way of life with the primary difference being in the perceived quality of the schools. Chances are strong that the township’s racial shift, from approximately 90% white in the 1970s to barely 50% today, derives less from minorities moving into new housing developments than from whites leaving the area altogether. Diversity in and of itself should not be a problem—and most likely isn’t a problem to most of the residents of Trader’s Point—but declining schools don’t impel new families with high incomes to move there, and a sour reputation can lower property values, thereby resulting in an overall diminution of the tax base. The reputation of Pike Township public schools is the key concern here.

That’s where businesses like Trader’s Point Creamery can prove far more critical than their proprietors ever had intended. The dairy farm has galvanized the identity of Trader’s Point for its residents and the outside community, as well as organic yogurt aficionados across the nation. What the surrounding public could easily perceive as mundane semi-rural outskirts now has a discernible name, and, thanks to last year’s passage of the Traders Point Rural Historic District, identifiable boundaries. Its rolling hills and abundant tree canopy—about a tenth of Pike Township comprises the over 5000-acre Eagle Creek Park—could almost place it somewhere in southern Vermont (okay, so it’s not quite that hilly), but it rests in the limits of a large city. The posh rural character that some might criticize as sprawl may be one of Trader’s Point’s saving graces—with the presence of other specialty farms or trades that cater to an affluent, educated, eco-friendly clientele, the community may be able to overcome the stigma of a floundering school district by adapting to its growing diversity so that it remains a broadly attractive place to live, perhaps even because of its diversity. Clearly it’s not the same as every patch of rural Indiana; its far too multicultural for that. I find it a shame that the Creamery lists Zionsville as its mailing address on the website, even though it’s clearly in Indianapolis. Perhaps the Zionsville post office is closer, but I can’t help but think that even the folks at the Creamery might see Zionsville as a more “sellable” location than Indianapolis with its inner-city poverty, even though Trader’s Point is far removed from it all.

My recommendation here no doubt demonstrates the wobbliness of my Trader’s Point-Vermont analogy. Vermont as a state is hardly affiliated with any major city beyond the New Yorkers’ vacation or retirement homes, and even as it has become the nation’s most clearly identifiable bohemioracy, it has not in general needed to address racial and ethnic diversity. (The biggest ethnic tension in Vermont, from what I hear, is the political disharmony between the tenth-generation Vermonters of rural sensibilities, and the somewhat sneering cosmopolitanism of the urban newcomers. But both groups are white.) However, what Vermont has achieved through its cheeses, syrups, coffee roasters, and
highest craft-brewery-per-capita ranking of any state in the nation is to transform its specialized agriculture into an engine for tourism and cultural consumerism. One friend of mine claimed that several other organic goods vendors have co-opted Vermont as a brand, dishonestly claiming to come from the state because it will better sell to the trendy white liberals than if it came from, say, Kansas.

And that’s where Vermont’s success translates to a creative dead-end for both Indiana and the Midwest at large. Our farm acreage is vaster than anything New England can hope for. Removing Maine, the remaining five states of New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts) are smaller than Indiana as a whole, and Indiana is the smallest contiguous state west of the Appalachians! Clearly the Midwest is known for its superlative farmland, and some of the states have been able to forge an identity for an agricultural export or two: Wisconsin remains America’s Dairyland (with cheese shops around every corner); Nebraska’s meatpacking centered around Omaha Steaks has elevated it to a specialty good beyond the titanic presence of Con-Agra; and Indiana has quietly asserted itself as the epicenter of popcorn. But the general perspective both Midwesterns and the nation have of their landscape is endless fields of one or two crops. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa suffer a just stereotype of corn, corn, corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, corn. Hardly the same level of eclectic output one sees coming from tiny little Vermont. I’m hesitant to assert that federal agriculture subsidies contribute to this, because I’m not well-versed enough in how they fully operate. However, this chart indicates that the Midwest receives the lion’s share. And these subsidies surely help explain why nearly a fifth of the country is devoted to cornfields, when a single state’s crop alone could likely feed most of the nation, if not the world. Could such subsidies stifle the creativity of Midwestern farmers, reducing them to churning out mind-numbering surpluses of corn at the expense of more innovative marketable goods? Perhaps one of the Midwest states will find a way to turn high-fructose corn syrup into a prestigious gourmet item, the way Ben and Jerry can now charge $5 for a cone. Or maybe that can just get Ben and Jerry to fill their Cherry Garcia with corn syrup. No thanks.

Vermont is replete with the likes of Trader’s Point Creamery. If the state’s relatively modest capacity for agribusiness translates to a smaller net recipient of federal farm subsidies, the low dependence on federal aid may help unleash the sort of creativity that makes it the epicenter of boutique organic farming. Clearly the nation cannot depend on Vermont alone for sustenance, but Vermont can certainly use its hyped-up pastoralism to bring in the tourists, even when at least 30 other states have greater agricultural capacity. The culture that supports places like Trader’s Point Creamery may be abundant in Vermont, and I wouldn’t begin to suggest that Indiana should try to mimic the state—I’m not trying to champion or condemn Vermont’s politics and demographics. But ingenuity that turned Vermont’s dying mills and struggling dairy farms into a stylish commodity is the same force that inspires the good folks at Trader’s Point Creamery. A little bit more of that élan could breathe new life into Midwest rural culture, or a deceptively unique place like Trader’s Point.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Invisible fences for humans, Part III: Importing desirability to schools that lack the demographic advantages.

My previous post on this subject explored my hypothesis, on how school districts derive most of their competitive advantage from demographics that favor high educational attainment. The greatest public schools earn their cachet far more from demographics that skew towards either low poverty or ethnic homogeneity (or ideally a combination of the two) far more than intensive credentialing for teachers, sophisticated pedagogical technology, or a high per pupil funding.

If it wasn’t clear from that analysis, perhaps the picture above, from the highly ranked suburban school district of Plainfield, Indiana, should communicate exactly how this country regards its patchwork of widely divergent school systems. I’ll reiterate my conclusion from the previous post: Despite a non-exclusionary structure that resembles a public good, school districts are first and foremost commodities of variable quality which forces them to compete for patronage. When highly marketable, school districts endow land within their invisible boundaries with greater value. Therefore, both municipal governments and electorates themselves have commodified schools so intractably that it has become their ambition to refine the district continuously, ideally so that it attracts the demographic base that will allow it to perform at a high standard as efficiently as possible.

Realtors have long known that it behooves them to become proficient in the nuances regional school quality, particularly if the prospective buyer is under 50, but even older, childless clientele often seek good districts because they know it will influence the appreciation of their home values. Websites like provide a “grassroots” information exchange for people seeking to relocate, in order to get firsthand information from locals in that prospective region; the overwhelming majority inquire about school districts. In Indianapolis, the local respondents consistently steer people directly toward the suburbs, advising them to shun IPS and avoid most of the collar townships, with the possible exception of Washington Township, Franklin Township, Speedway, or Beech Grove—the four school districts outlined earlier in the map above. Thus, within Marion County, only the districts featuring the two darker shades of purple enjoy the consistent reputation of desirable places to raise a family, due to the quality of the public schools.

Where does this leave those districts that fall somewhere in the middle, the ones that are neither wealthy (like Bexley) nor homogeneous (like Beech Grove), nor entrenched with poverty and a lack of parental involvement, the way Indianapolis and Columbus Public Schools are? This comprises a considerable amount of the city’s land area. Many of these districts, such as the majority of the collar townships in Indianapolis, are currently simply average, which is hardly appealing to newcomers with high aspirations when they can find exceptional school districts just a few miles away, outside the city limits. Because these average districts fail to contain in their boundaries the demographics that make them high-performance, they can quickly translate to “unsuccessful” and will hemorrhage the student population whose parents have the wherewithal to seek better public schools. In time, the collar townships of Indianapolis, or suburbs like Whitehall in Columbus, could contend with the same malaise and atrocious test scores as the inner city public schools, when all the committed students and their families have left. The polarization of school districts into haves and have-nots continues.

My recommendations have little to do with school management. I’m not a superintendent or a professional educator, and I wouldn’t pretend to know how to change operations within a particular school or classroom to adapt the curriculum to an evolving student body. Many of these recommendations would no doubt come across as naïve to someone intimately involved in public education. They probably are naïve. But I have been able to observe declining public attitudes towards some districts, while others remain ironclad bastions of academic excellence, and I have scrutinized the population changes taking place within these jurisdictions. Nearly all of the school districts in the collar townships of Indianapolis had strong reputations twenty years ago, and now many of them don’t, despite the fact that many of the same faculty and staff are still working there, just as committed as they were before. How can these middle-tier schools cope with demographic change? I propose a framework for rethinking the branding of schools districts that aren’t hot commodities like Bexley, or comfortably lily-white like Beech Grove—observations the ways to reinvent themselves so that their image, and the educational product they sell, can remain competitive.

1) Stop using the top-tier school districts in the rich suburbs as a model to emulate; look instead to the creative responses to challenges that the inner city schools are facing
. Much of Indianapolis and Columbus city limits encompasses what demographers and urban planners are typically labeling inner-ring suburbia. These regions within the metropolitan landscape typically share similar features; among the most prevalent are their homes built before the 1960s, often in an automobile oriented configuration. The inner-ring suburban neighborhoods eschew the urban street grid, using curvilinear streets in a hierarchical configuration in which residential areas are segregated from commercial districts with minimal through-streets. The unadorned, outmoded strip malls in these areas are often heavily vacant, the houses are small (by today’s standards) and old-fashioned, and the newly arrived populations (often foreign-born or African American) have significantly lower spending capacity than the middle class folks who preceded them. These areas are, in many regards, economically declining. Thus, it is wishful thinking for the school districts that serve these areas (many of the collar townships in Indianapolis, for example) to continue to think that new school spending on state-of-the-art smart classrooms, stadia, or auditoriums will necessarily attract well-heeled newcomers to the public schools. Nonetheless, many of them have recently tried levying a new tax through mostly unsuccessful referenda. The fact remains that the middle class who once lived in these areas is receding, as families with the spending capacity make beelines to the excellent school districts in the shiny, new, poverty-free suburbs and exurbs. The new student population is less likely to have committed parents or college aspirations, which is typically reflected by higher drop-out rates and lower standardized test scores. These districts cannot compete with suburbia on academic performance statistics alone. They should instead look at the initiatives of inner-city districts, which struggle to attract anything other than the extreme poor to their catchment area. Indianapolis Public Schools offers a diverse array of charter programs (more than just about any district in the country), with a success rate that is mixed but still often surpasses the conventional inner-city schools. Magnet programs are an excellent way of preserving a degree of heterogeneity in a school district. Unfortunately, they typically sequester the highest achieving, more affluent students living in an inner city district through a college-placement curriculum, so that the poorer, less academically minded students only share the same roof with the aforementioned kids while taking completely different classes. Nonetheless, magnet schools instill a measure of socioeconomic diversity otherwise unseen in the overwhelmingly poor, minority districts throughout American inner cities. Many inner-ring districts in Indianapolis offer innovative programs, such as charter schools or a language immersion school in the collar township of Lawrence. School districts have to offer a viable service, and some families with enough disposable income to be choosy will seek innovation and creativity, even if it takes place in outmoded buildings. The continued popularity of magnet programs at schools such as Broad Ripple and Arsenal Tech prove that the political catchphrase of “instruction not construction” can elicit measurable results. By all means, fix the leaky pool or aging boiler, but no Olympic sized pool on its own is going to draw affluent families to the district if the suburb next door has a good pool and high test scores.

Embrace the cultural and ethnic diversity typically inherent in these school districts, particularly by accommodating programming in the fine arts, humanities, and athletics. With their diverse economies and low costs of living, cities like Columbus and Indianapolis have become increasingly desirable destinations for both middle class families and aspiring recent immigrants, particularly in the past decade or so. The dichotomy between the aforementioned groups, however, is profound—the white middle class families exercise their spending power and build new homes in the suburbs or buy in places like Bexley (if they can afford it), while the immigrants and foreign-born often settle with the older housing stock in the central cities. The inner-ring suburbs, though economically declining by many metrics, still offer better schools, lower crime, and greater accessibility to the scattered jobs in these decentralized metros than the aging housing in the inner cities, with their extreme mix of gentrified yuppie enclaves and profound minority poverty. The inner-rings are some of the most diverse areas in the nation, often boasting 20 to 30 languages within a few square miles, co-existing peacefully for the most part. In Indianapolis, few of schools in the collar townships in 1990 had a need for English as a Learned Language programs (ELL); today, nearly all of them do. A few of the elementary schools in the formerly lily-white Perry Township (just south of downtown Indy and IPS) now have student bodies that consist of 20% to 30% Burmese refugees. Clearly these foreign-born students have needs distinct from their English-speaking peers, but to what degree should they be sequestered? My speculation is that schools (at least in Midwest cities like Indianapolis and Columbus) are doing a much better job at recognizing this observation than my Observation #1. Many schools engage these students through international and cultural festivals, while classes with fewer language needs—such as mathematics and physical education—are frequently fully integrated. Administrators might be able to take this a step further by incorporating it into curriculum where an international Weltanschauung benefits everyone, including the native English speakers. Courses such as world history (sadly an elective across much of the US), art history, music appreciation, civics, phys ed (international sports), or even a sociology class devoted to immigration—all of these have the potential for malleability that would allow them to adapt to a broader cultural outlook, even if it only involves one or two days out of the entire semester. Not every middle-class parent is seeking ethnic homogeneity in the school districts; homogeneity just tends to yield the best test results, and people gravitate to favorable numbers. Branding schools as diverse by adding the multicultural perspective that international schools successfully adopted long ago (often with great success), could help turn around the struggling inner-ring suburban districts by tapping into the aspect of their identity that can distinguish them positively.

Accommodate socioeconomic or aspirational strata through increasingly divergent curricula beyond elementary school. I’ve read City-Data forum postings where well-educated, liberal parents have shrugged their shoulders at the fact they are shielding their kids from cultural diversity by sending them to the highly-ranked suburban public schools; they argue that their kids will get plenty of multicultural exposure in college and it’s more important right now to send them to a top school. I could hardly criticize this argument. Of course, much of the homogeneity that affluent parents seek in good school districts has less to do with race or ethnicity that socioeconomics. Not all these middle class families are so prejudiced that they move to the suburbs solely to avoid racial minorities. Wealthy, top ranked districts in the suburbs, such as Carmel High School north of Indianapolis, are not uniformly Caucasian. Many of these schools have a strong racial minority and foreign-born population; the difference is that these minorities are equally affluent and strive to send their kids to the top public schools in the region. Their parents have raised them in an English-speaking environment, either because the household is multilingual or they are second- and third-generation immigrants. The inner-ring collar townships of Indianapolis and the suburban outskirts within Columbus city limits aren’t remotely economically one-note. Even if, all too frequently, the more aspirational (and often wealthier) kids tend to become segregated into the accelerated educational track, both wealthy and poor students bump shoulders in the hallways between classes or in the non-weighted subjects, such as music or phys ed. High schools in the collar townships will continue to encompass socioeconomic diversity, which may prove beneficial for dealing with life down the road, since, unless we all move to places like Carmel, we all have to engage with people outside our income level now and then. Probably 30 to 50% of students at the inner-ring school districts go on to college; about 90% in Carmel do. Since only about 30% of all Americans have a college education, you can guess which school system is more reflective of the greater American population at large. I can’t help but wonder if the economically diverse schools appear under continuous strain because they have to accommodate such a wide variety of aspirations. Many reformers have argued that the American system has left itself hamstrung by nationwide, standardized minimum curricula, forcing nearly all students to get at least three years of mathematics, two years of science, four in English, etc, even when it is clear that a large contingent lack the aptitude, ambition, interest, or need for algebra or Julius Caesar. It makes me wonder how well an increasingly diverse nation such as Germany is adapting to its multi-tiered system, in which, after the Grundschule from grades 1 through 4, students are divided, based on academic ability and parents’ wishes, to one of three facilities. The five-year Hauptschule teaches some advanced subjects at a slower pace and prepares students for vocational apprenticeships. The six-year Realschule includes part-time vocational schools and advanced apprenticeships, with the possibility of moving up to the nine-year Gymnasium, the school for university-bound students. This structure generally favorably skews international test scores for Germans, since many standardized math and science exams only target the students enrolled in the full 13-year Gymnasium. From an American perspective, the German system may appear overly deterministic and highly segregated, filtering out students by ability at an inordinately young age. But lateral mobility from school to school is always possible, and it already bears a passing resemblance to the hierarchy of accelerated, gifted/talented, special ed, or remedial programs that exist throughout the US. Placing such a system under one roof would allow different aspirational levels to find a specific niche that allows a broader array of students the opportunity to excel, but it would still give the district the ability to focus quality programming on the college-bound contingent among the students. Some high achieving parents actually prefer such an educational environment because it is less “snobby” or elitist than the fancy suburban schools, but the standards for the college-bound students remain high. For parents with the financial resources who don’t want the demographics of their high school to echo the nearest country club, a school with diversified academic tracks aligned with ability may be a better fit.

Encourage the populations living in these districts who are unaffected by school quality to engage with the districts. This intense discussion about accommodating families with school children leaves out one sizable demographic: those for whom public schools are irrelevant. This contingent may even comprise a majority of the population in many major cities, since it includes households with no children, households for whom the children are grown and out of school, or households who send their children to private schools. Most struggling inner city public schools are experiencing a net decline in student enrollment form year to year; if these districts are experiencing any population growth whatsoever, chances are the new arrivals belong to one of the groups listed above. Many of these people have made the choice to move or remain in the central city despite steeper crime rates, higher taxes, deteriorating infrastructure, and a floundering public education system. The reasons for remaining are diverse, but embedded in many of them is a commitment to living in the city to support the amenities that urban centers have to offer (even if, as is frequently case in Indianapolis and Columbus, the environment in which they may live remains auto-oriented and suburban). Many of these people are themselves well-educated and affluent; the property owners among them have voluntarily subjected themselves to a certain level of taxation to support the local districts, even though it has no bearing on them personally, beyond the truism that good schools equate to higher home values. If school districts forged ways of getting these people involved in their respective districts, it could only broaden the aggregate level of stewardship. How can they achieve this? Recent retirees and empty nesters often seek volunteering opportunities and may be eager to help tutor ELL students, coach freshman football, or serve as an assistant director for school plays. Publicity for major events—the annual musical, a major basketball rivalry, a statewide debate tournament—should target far more than just the parents of children involved. These individuals could easily offer a relevant outsider’s perspective on school boards or education foundations. I think the inner-ring school districts have only just begun to tap into the communitarian-mindedness of the local childless population, perhaps because they would appear an unlikely source for additional financial support; after all, they’re already paying heavy taxes for a service they don’t use. But the property owners among them still have an interest in successful school districts because of the impact it can exert on their home’s value. The potential for volunteerism and fresh ideas these people offer remains generally overlooked.

If it isn’t obvious already from this long analysis, school districts across the US tend to polarize; the status quo is homogeneity, often by race and nearly always by social class. The inner-ring, collar county schools—the mediocre ones—get very little attention, sandwiched between the superstars in the outer suburbs and the deeply troubled ones of the inner-city. The success stories among schools that fit into this category rarely make it into the local newspaper, but in Marion County, one school district does seem to enjoy the lion’s share of positive press: Washington Township, the collar township directly north of Indianapolis Public Schools, outlined in yellow in the map above. North Central High School, the only grade 9-12 public school in the district, still enjoys a reputation that ranges from good to superlative, all while being far from racially or economically homogeneous. Department of Education snapshots reveal that the student body of over 3,200 is under 50% white, and the district encompasses some Indianapolis’ most prestigious neighborhoods, such as Williams Creek and Meridian Hills, while also feeding into some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the region, such as parts of The Meadows; 29% of the student body qualifies for the free lunch program.

Within the Indianapolis metro, North Central’s reputation is of an institution that manages to wield its colossal size and diversity towards overwhelming self-affirmation. It caters to a tough crowd yet annually sends kids to Harvard and Yale; it has a permanent security team after successful arson attempts in the 1990s yet offers a full array of Advance Placement and International Baccalaureate programs; it provides curricula to kids living in Section 8 as well as trust fund beneficiaries. The fact that it is “tough” and “urban” yet still elite has evolved to one of its primary selling points: the wealthy kids can prepare themselves for college while still understanding the need for street smarts that comes from having classmates who grow up entirely without privilege. Those same lower-income students may receive a discipline and sufficient exposure to academic success to motivate them when they find no inspiration or support in their immediate families. Co-existence of polar opposites under North Central’s mammoth roof is not a guaranteed success, but it has sustained itself for decades. My generalizations about the rich and poor are of course superficial to the point of being patronizing, but the essence of a school’s reputation is often based on similarly facile stereotypes. North Central’s reputation of tough and top-tier derives largely from the fact that it attracts an urban liberal gentry committed to a diverse worldview, and it is possible some of its programs—particularly the costly International Baccalaureate—would be hard to replicate in the other inner-ring, collar township schools of Indianapolis. But it is clearly getting something right that other districts such as Pike and Lawrence Township, are struggling to achieve as their growing diversity has resulted in a decline in the academic reputation. North Central remains the regional paradigm.

As I conclude this intensive study inspired by the differences inside and outside the Columbus suburb of Bexley, I am likely to subject myself to a wide array of criticism, much of it no doubt deserved. It may appear that I have overemphasized the importance school districts play in the overall desirability of a location. I’m sure other educational policy analysts would assert that I have focused on demographic influences on public schools, almost deterministically and at the exclusion of other variables. But I remain convinced that teachers, principals, facilities, computers, and overall cash flow have far less of an impact than the home environment to which students return at the end of a day. Dedicated teachers, sophisticated technology, and tremendous public spending will seldom compensate for lack of familial support. If too many students come from families who cannot be motivated to value their children’s education (as is the case in Indianapolis and Columbus Public Schools), educators will not be able to cultivate an environment that appeals to those families who do care. Perhaps I focus on the middle-tier schools that are losing ground because I went to an inner-ring school district myself and received a perfectly good education from it. A little over a decade later, many of the same teachers remain in my high school as committed to their jobs as ever, even while the student population has skewed increasingly toward foreign-born newcomers and racial minorities, seeking an alternative to dysfunctional inner-city schools but not wealthy enough to afford the elite exurbs. While the forces that instigate urban decline and renewal are infinitely complicated, for a significant portion of the American population, schools are the tail that wags the dog. We really do—at least many of us—value education that much.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Invisible fences for humans, Part II: Harnessing control through the schools.

Infill development near Bexley Main Street: a new synagogue.

After a longer lapse than usual, I treat whoever is interested to a feast of text with this post—not much to get excited about I suppose, but I promise this isn’t the new norm, and any responses are greatly appreciated.

In a recent post, I observed the distinctive character of the suburban enclave of Bexley, Ohio, which is surrounded by the bigger city of Columbus. Bexley abuts some of the larger city’s rougher neighborhoods yet remains resolutely prosperous—one of the metro area’s premier places to live, in fact. By the conclusion of the post I surmised that Bexley’s consistent desirability derived less from its attractive urban character or governance (it certainly shows no evidence of legislation that deliberately excludes the poor), as much as it achieved favorable demographics early in its development, then promptly built a political fortification around itself. Those favorable demographics—an affluent, well-educated, largely Jewish, predominantly white population—anticipate the city’s highly ranked school system: such a community will inevitably have high test scores or Harvard-bound graduates because it’s filled with high achievers. The stellar reputation of the system in turn amplifies Bexley’s property values. With Columbus surrounding it on all sides, the city’s limited housing supply will never meet its demand, so values are significantly higher than the regional norm, further pricing out low and even middle income people. Its only option for expanding its housing supply has been through infill development on parking lots and formerly low-density sites, but even these will immediately command a high price tag. Bexley’s elite status is virtually etched in stone.

Such “maximum-performance” suburbs are common to almost every large city in the county, so Bexley is not unique. The second half of this study is going to veer away from Bexley—I’ve talked enough about the town already—and more about its most powerful political tool: its school system. Not so much a stick for fending off the undesirables (as I inaccurately referred to it in the first essay), the Bexley Public School District is more of a defensive gesture—it’s too passive to equate it to something like law enforcement. My suspicion is a city like Bexley would need a more robust police force than its comfy demographics might suggest (certainly more than rich outer suburbs like Dublin, Ohio), simply because the criminality of Columbus is so much closer at hand. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I speculate that Bexley and other enclaves wield their power through their prestigious public school systems.

In Furious Pursuit of the Best Public Education

The state of American primary education—particularly in the context of public schools—undergoes countless scholarly and journalistic reviews for its widely divergent and often abysmal quality. Scarcely a year passes when some new statistic shows American high and junior high school students’ mediocre performance on international tests in mathematics, science, and the humanities, compared to other developed nations (as well as developing ones).

Education reform has long served as a cudgel by which opposing political viewpoints use to beat one another: the left frequently asserts that inadequate funding for teachers or supplemental resources leave American students flagging academically, while the right rebuts that permissiveness and a lack of structure have killed the majority of public schools beyond reform, frequently advocating voucher programs to allow academically minded parents of limited incomes to “buy” a slot in the reputable private schools nearby. International reports shake their heads, frequently allying with the left, sometimes to the point of condescendingly suggesting that underfunded schools demonstrate the low regard that Americans have for public education in general.

That final observation could not be further from the truth. Wide variability in educational aptitude exists in every nation. But the strongest proof that a sizable portion of Americans are driven to succeed is not manifest in our internationally admired higher learning institutions (in which many of the American public universities rank among the best), nor is it evident in the high representation of Americans among prestigious global honors such as the Nobel Prize. The best demonstration that, fundamentally, Americans in general value education is through their moving and resettling patterns.

Look at any metro area in the nation. Those with high public school test scores are invariably the fastest growing districts. In the Midwest, cities like Naperville (west of Chicago), Carmel (north of Indianapolis), or Overland Park (west of Kansas City across the Kansas state line) absorb a significant portion of their metro areas’ growth rates because of the enduringly high quality of the public schools. High demand pushes land values upward, ensuring that any new growth in the undeveloped areas of these sprawling suburbs will remain prestigious because only the affluent can afford to live there—a population who, in this meritocracy, will typically ensure the public schools’ test scores remain high. However, if a certain district is no longer growing because it lacks the room to grow—like Bexley—then its property values are typically through the roof. Parents often search aggressively for the district even within a single metro with the ideal public school system to meet Billy and Suzie’s needs, relocating to a new suburb if necessary.

Sometimes these aspirational parents even engage in benign deception, as one man did whose family owned a fancy home just outside of Bexley in Columbus, but rented an apartment for him and his children in Bexley limits, living apart from the wife/mother so they could attend the schools there. Bexley officials caught on to the scam, asserting that the kids still spend the majority of their time in the Columbus house rather than the Bexley apartment, and ousted the family. The father sued to get his kids re-enrolled; the City countersued; legal fees have escalated into the thousands of dollars. All this just to get the kids into Bexley Public Schools.

Carving an Academic Enclave

Desirability of school districts almost invariably exerts an influence on residential property values in an area, even if the region in question has previously been largely undesirable. A recent initiative in Philadelphia provides an excellent example: the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander School (grades K – 8), better known as Penn Alexander, began in 2001 as a partnership between the city’s public school system and the adjacent University of Pennsylvania. The University has offered subsidies and teaching expertise to serve this West Philadelphia neighborhood, with income levels that range from profound poverty to urban gentry. Degreed professors and yuppies sit cheek-by-jowl with the inner city (most African American) poor in a part of the city where prosperity and personal safety often varies from block to block, if not house by house. The Philadelphia Public School system is predictably troubled, and prior to 2001, most affluent residents of West Philadelphia either had no children or sent them to private schools, leaving the public schools almost exclusively to the area’s poor. The result is a neighborhood where children of less advantaged households have little opportunity to engage with those whose parents seek the best educational options for their children.

But the Penn Alexander School’s performance, curricula, and innovative programming have ranked it comparable to the best private schools in the region, and local realtors have pounced on the housing within its constrained catchment area. The predictable results? Home prices have skyrocketed. Along the boundaries of the catchment area, a three-story house on one side of the street could be worth as much as $100,000 than its less favorably situated neighbor on the other side. Many of the low-income residents for whom the Penn Alexander School intended to serve can no longer afford to live in the area, whereas wealthy professors from Drexel or Penn quickly snatch up the properties so they can send their kids to the school. The goal of reaching across multiple strata through this Penn-Assist program has weakened as the gentrifying West Philadelphia has become increasingly socioeconomically homogeneous.

In essence, the minds behind the Penn-Philly Public School partnership have appropriated a small pocket of the West Philadelphia neighborhood and rendered it prestigious by interpolating a new catchment area that aligns with this generously endowed school. Everything around it remains saddled with the struggling Philadelphia Public School system (sans partnership). Are the boundaries for the Penn Alexander School the be-all and end-all? Crime rates, education levels, percentage of vacant/abandoned houses, and job growth indicators in West Philadelphia remain variable and generally compare unfavorably to the Philadelphia suburbs, yet the catchment area remains extremely desirable, suggesting that many people seeking housing are willing to overlook crime and urban grit if they can find a good public school. Regardless of the original intentions, the lucre of this school district in a diverse urban environment could eventually shift the demographics in this area to a duplicate of Bexley, but without the distinction of two adjacent municipal governments—only school administrative authority.

How Populations Respond to Fixed School District Boundaries

Returning to the Midwest, Indianapolis offers a particularly unusual patchwork of jurisdictions and school districts, unlike Columbus, or any other large city in the country. The city, formerly comprising most of the center of Marion County, expanded its boundaries to coincide with that of the county through the 1970 initiative known as Unigov. Today, Marion County and Indianapolis city limits are nearly coterminous, with the exception of four excluded communities—Southport, Beech Grove, Lawrence, and Speedway—which each have almost complete autonomy, with their own mayors and city councils. (A fifth municipality, Cumberland, would also have been considered an excluded community except that its city limits straddle both Marion and the adjacent Hancock County.) The Wikipedia map below illustrates how these systems operate within Marion County, with Indianapolis comprising the red portion of the county, while the excluded cities are labeled in the gray regions:

Any unlabelled gray regions on the map above are “unexcluded towns” with limited self-governance but are essentially incorporated within Indianapolis. They have limited political authority on their own. As you can see, three of the four excluded communities—Southport, Beech Grove, and Speedway—are enclaves, functioning much the same way as Bexley, with the city of Indianapolis surrounding them.

The school districts, though, are an entirely different matter: Marion County has 11 of them, mostly tied to the nine townships that stack within the county like a tic-tac-toe board. Indianapolis Public Schools comprises the central portion of the county, including all of Center Township and parts of some the surrounding townships; its irregular boundaries comprise the Indianapolis city limits before the city-county consolidation through Unigov. Each of the surrounding eight townships, hereafter referred to as the “collar townships”, has its own school district. Meanwhile, two of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove and Speedway, have their own districts outside of both the townships and Indianapolis Public Schools. The other two excluded cities, Southport and Lawrence, remain part of the township school districts in which their boundaries rest. The map below from the SAVI Community Information System illustrates this effectively, showing the success rates of 10th graders on the 2008 ISTEP based by school district throughout the metro area:

Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) occupies the amorphous blob in the center of Marion County, colored in the palest shade of purple. Like most inner city school systems with high concentrations of poverty, its statistics are unimpressive: according to the legend to the left of the map, less than 43% of students in the high schools there passed the Math and English portions of the ISTEP, the worst results in the entire region. The eight surrounding “collar townships” performed somewhat better, with results all above 43% and some as high as 75%. (Of course, none of these statistics compare to the stellar scores in surrounding counties such as Hamilton or Hendricks, where the darkest purple indicates ISTEP pass rates of 75% to 92%. Nonetheless, the focus must remain on Marion County, where the various school districts labor valiantly to improve academic performance, yet only a few districts show above average results. Which areas show the highest desirability? Two of the townships rate more highly than the others. Washington Township north of the IPS district (outlined in yellow) is generally perceived as a strong school district; while racially diverse, it also houses many of the most affluent households in the entire metro, as well as some of the families with the highest levels of college education. Franklin Township, to the southeast of IPS (outlined in green), is not as wealthy as Washington Township, but is much more homogeneous, remaining predominantly white and middle class, with relatively new exurban development.

Lastly, and most compellingly, the two enclaves with their own school districts, Speedway (outlined in blue) and Beech Grove (outlined in brown), also have ISTEP pass rates above the city’s mediocre average. Both districts abut gritty parts of the low-performing Indianapolis Public district, yet their respective districts continue to perform relatively well and generally have strong reputations. Could they be the Indianapolis equivalent of Bexley? The racial composition suggests that might be the case:

Like Bexley, both Speedway and Beech Grove are more homogeneous than their surrounding city and metro. Beech Grove in particular is overwhelmingly white. But neither Speedway nor Beech Grove share Bexley’s economic advantages. While Bexley’s 2000 median household income was $70,200, placing it well above the national average, Beech Grove’s median income was $41,548 and Speedway’s $37,713. Neither town can claim the affluence of Bexley; it would be safe to refer to either community as lower-middle or even working class. Thus, the differences between Beech Grove or Speedway and the Indianapolis that surrounds them is far less striking than is the case with Bexley and Columbus. Nonetheless, they remain more desirable than many sections of Indianapolis because their school system have a superior reputation, even if nowhere near as highly ranked as the system in the better educated suburb of Bexley. The differentials in property values between Beech Grove/Speedway and Indianapolis are far less profound than between Bexley and Columbus, but they’re still significant enough that a low income family looking to get out of the IPS district may struggle to afford the housing in Beech Grove or Speedway just a few miles away. In all three cases, the enclaves are less ethnically and economically diverse than their surrounding communities, which translates to a selling point for families looking for a good school system that fits within their price range.

This study has already asserted that most Americans generally demonstrate a value for education through the population growth trends that favor suburbs with great schools. These enclaves in Indianapolis and Columbus would suggest that Americans value homogeneity just as much: rich, white communities can grow astronomically yet remain rich and white. I’m not convinced that Americans are so fixated on racial prejudice that they are identifying these suburbs as “good” solely because they are mostly white, but a couple of embedded demographic features are shaping these settlement patterns. 1) Whites remain the numerically dominant race as well as the wealthiest, and they consequently have the greatest freedom to move into communities of their choice (though the numeric and economic dominance of whites is slowly declining). 2) Homogeneous educational environments do tend to foster greater academic success, whether homogeneity is ethnic or (particularly) economic.

If this latter postulate seems discomfiting, it’s not derived from racial or ethnic prejudice so much as the fact that homogeneity of all types facilitates efficiency of resources. The more racially diverse school districts in Indianapolis, such as IPS or the collar townships, must cater to a broader economic array, from the affluent to the extreme poor, while the suburbs generally only educate the affluent, regardless of race. School districts in Indianapolis (excluding to the two homogenous enclaves of Speedway and Beech Grove) require English as a Learned Language (ELL) programs for an increasing array of students. Even if the suburban school districts enroll some ethnic minorities and foreign-born citizens, the language and cultural barriers are smaller because these ethnic minority families already had the financial strength to move to the suburbs. Indianapolis Public Schools and the surrounding collar townships must assimilate a rapidly growing array of foreign born students. For better or for worse, economically and culturally homogenous communities—the Bexley, the Beech Grove, or the Speedway—typically demand far fewer resources in aggregate and are therefore easier to teach.

Buying the Right School System

Despite a non-exclusionary structure that resembles a public good, school districts are first and foremost competitive commodities. When highly marketable, school districts endow land inside their invisible boundaries with greater value. Therefore, both municipal governments and the electorates themselves have commodified schools so intractably that it has become their ambition to refine the district continuously, ideally so that it attracts the demographic base that will allow it to perform at a high standard as efficiently as possible.

Where does this leave the other schools? The final section of my already complete report will focus on my own recommendations for how schools that are neither suburbs of a single social class, nor impoverished inner-city can harness their diverse demographics to remain recognizable and competitive.