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

When neighbors are no longer classmates, what happens to the community?

Most students live and attend school in the same neighborhood. These are “neighborhood schools” where the students are from a clearly defined geographic area that is similar to the neighborhood boundary. With these traditional neighborhood schools, neighbors are classmates, schools are community institutions, and generations of families are graduates. But in DC’s Kenilworth Parkside neighborhood, more children attend school outside of the neighborhood than in it.

In DC, levels of school choice are among the highest in the nation—in some wards, fewer than 50 percent of children attend school in their own ward. Urban recently set out to understand the dynamics of students in areas with school choice by analyzing DC public and charter school data; Kenilworth Parkside is a perfect example.

The neighborhood has one traditional elementary school, one charter middle school, and one charter high school. In 2012, 35 percent (507) of the 1,464 children went to schools in the neighborhood and 65 percent (957) went to more than 150 different schools elsewhere. A total of 661 students traveled to Kenilworth Parkside from outside the neighborhood to attend its schools.

Many metropolitan areas and neighborhoods are following in DC’s and Kenilworth Parkside’s footsteps, allowing parents to select from an array of public charter schools, magnet schools, and other public schools with open-enrollment policies. These schools might be in the student’s neighborhood, but are more often in an adjacent neighborhood, or across town and with classmates from dozens of neighborhoods. As a result, the link between where a student lives and where she attends school is evolving.

Where does that leave the neighborhood?

Student connections to each other and to their neighbors are bound to be affected by the amount of time they spend together. DC and other cities’ increasing levels of school choice raise questions about whether neighborhoods change when children begin to attend out-of-neighborhood schools.

Do students growing up in the era of school choice feel less attachment to their neighborhood? Does the time it takes for children (and their parents) to travel to schools outside of their neighborhood prevent them from forming bonds and relationships in the community? And do schools no longer perform as community institutions when they serve children from outside the neighborhood? Do churches, parks, and community centers become more important?

Finding answers as school choice continues to grow

Writer Sam Chaltain recently released a book that explores these questions through a series of stories about teachers and students in two DC schools. But to truly assess the effects of school choice, we may need a more systematic approach.

More than a decade ago, a research team in Chicago (Robert Sampson, Stephen Raudenbush, and Felton Earls) developed a valuable measurement tool called “collective efficacy” to determine how connected neighbors are by assessing how often they help each other, if they share the same values and trust each other, and whether they are willing to intervene on behalf of the common good.

Multiple studies, including research on the Urban Institute’s Housing Opportunity and Services Together demonstration, have already shown a relationship between low levels of collective efficacy and high levels of neighborhood crime and disorder.

In cities like DC, this tool could be used to determine whether and how neighborhood relationships change when neighborhood children no longer attend neighborhood schools. A better understanding of these dynamics now will help policymakers make choices about school policy that help kids and their communities.

School bus photo from Shutterstock

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