The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 23, 2014

What does residential and school mobility mean for place-based programs?

April 23, 2014

Place-based initiatives that work to improve school quality, community supports, and parental involvement are gaining increased attention as policy options for improving educational outcomes for children in low-income neighborhoods.

But community change is hard: when it comes to community transformation, place-based improvement efforts have shown mixed results. High rates of mobility in low-income neighborhoods raise the question of whether the people these investments intend to help most remain in those neighborhoods long enough to benefit from community changes.

Place-based programs often make considerable investments in the quality of one or a few neighborhood schools, creating an anchor point for the partnerships that strengthen children’s programs and engage their parents and community. In reality, however, children in study neighborhoods for the program we investigated attended many schools at varying distances and switched often, suggesting that targeted investments in one school may not significantly affect educational outcomes for the entire neighborhood.

Moves driven by family instability tend to be associated with switching to schools that perform worse. If place-based education initiatives do not have the wherewithal to address more vexing housing and economic problems, the frequent churning of families and students may undermine the investments being made in that place.

Initiatives should consider how to reduce residential moves caused by distress or that produce little gain in school performance or neighborhood quality. Policies and practice should seek to deter residentially mobile children from moves to schools that don’t perform better.

Children’s lives are profoundly diminished when they grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods without access to high-quality schools. Place-based policies to improve their well-being were designed to fix that. Although investing in small, manageable geographic areas makes sense, these investments may not succeed without first addressing mobility.

Our study demonstrates if school and residential moves take children out of the target area and the areas nearby don’t also improve, families may become disconnected from the place-based resources, and gains may be lost. To make a real difference for families, reducing unproductive school and residential churning may be a key to place-based investment success.

This post is the third in a series that showed results from our new study of 10 communities participating in a place-based initiative, Making Connections. The first post showed that residential moves and switching schools were commonplace, but that for many children, these two types of mobility also occurred independently. The second showed that while many kids switched schools over the course of the study, on average, children didn’t reach higher-ranked schools. 

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