The "Beating Heart" of a Community: Elements of a Neighborhood School
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For most of Americans, where we live while we’re growing up determines where we go to school. This can create a shared identity and sense of community among students who live together and go to school together, or it can compound the disadvantages of residential segregation. However, the link between home and school is growing weaker—it was challenged first by the desegregation efforts of the 1970s and later by the rise of charter schools and voucher programs. Neighborhood schools, or schools where there is a one-to-one relationship between the neighborhood and the school, so all students in a given neighborhood go to the school and the school consists only of students from that neighborhood, are less and less common. Despite this, many parents still feel like they’re getting the “neighborhood school” experience. If not residence, what makes these schools neighborhood schools?
To answer this question, I conducted 46 in-depth interviews with parents of elementary and middle school children in Philadelphia. Most of these parents (26) have children at one of four focus schools. All four of these schools are relatively high-performing (scoring more than 50% on the School Progress Report), majority African American, and are roughly 50% out-of-catchment. These interviews revealed four major qualities that parents felt contributed to the “neighborhood school” atmosphere of their children’s schools: location and appearance, diversity, community engagement, and parent relationships.
The appearance of the school is a key component of why parents choose (or do not choose) a school: many parents cited the school appearing welcoming as a reason for their choice. Parents who chose their neighborhood school despite an unwelcoming appearance felt that the school’s appearance was indicative of the community’s lack of investment in the school. The location of the school within the community was also important—schools that were located on the other side of major roads were seen as less a part of the neighborhood than schools located near popular stores and parks. The school’s actual engagement with the community is also important. Parents feel that schools need to both give to and take from their neighborhoods: they should invite neighborhood residents who are not parents into the school for community events and effectively use the resources of those non-parent community members.
The demographic preferences of parents, especially middle class white parents, have been heavily researched. My findings are consistent with that research in that I found that parents of all races do not want their child to be the only member of their race at their school. However, my findings deviate from previous research in that most of the middle class white parents expressed an explicit preference for racial diversity at their children’s schools—many said it was important that the school reflected the demographics of Philadelphia and/or their neighborhoods. Race and class were also important for building parent relationships: the presence of a few parents who were reached beyond race and class boundaries to develop relationships was critical to parents feeling like they belonged at the school.