The blog of the Urban Institute
October 13, 2014

The intersecting worlds of education and community development policy

Until recently, many funders, policy researchers, and advocates thought of K-12 education and community development as separate spheres. But that is changing. In cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, planners are thinking of schools as amenities that can attract middle-class families.  Those interested in community development and education are beginning to accept that these two areas are inextricably linked.

Educators acknowledge that educational outcomes, particularly differences in educational outcomes, are a result of students’ experiences outside of the classroom as much as within it. Their work with young people requires a more thorough consideration of place: where kids live, and who or what is nearby, follows them to school.

Schools also affect communities, although not as consistently or directly. It’s hard to describe a neighborhood without thinking about the quality and variety of nearby schools, and it’s clear that the relative perceived quality of schools has a significant effect on housing costs and land values. Schools also serve as hubs for extracurricular activities, social networks, and human services for local children and families.

To identify and explore the shared concerns of practitioners, researchers, and policy experts in the fields of education and community development, the Urban Institute recently hosted a convening. Our guests— representatives from community development agencies, foundations, universities, school choice advocates, and parents—agreed that these two areas of work are indeed divided and need to be joined. Their thoughtful feedback and insights highlight areas for future collaboration and inquiry:

  • Segregation undercuts the transformative potential of schools. Residential segregation and the widening class divide in American cities mean that the effects of neighborhoods and schools on students in different communities may be diverging. Besides disparities in financial resources that distinguish wealthier and poorer communities, factors such as differing senses of entitlement and trust in the educational system affect the potential for parental engagement and reform in the places that need it most.
  • Neighborhood and classroom gentrification, though rare, may pave the way for more integrated communities in the future—but we need more research to know for sure. As one expert in our convening noted, in areas experiencing gentrification, schools may see little to no change as more highly educated, higher-income parents are more likely to send their kids to higher-tier institutions. For those who enroll their children in local schools, there is limited research on the longer-term cultural effects of economically integrated classrooms. Principals and teachers may be the key to harnessing the potential value of integration in schools, both by properly framing discussion about diverse student backgrounds and as a bridge to the broader community. However, education professionals face limited resources and time in the classroom, as well as difficulty locating and creating connections with community members.
  • Charter schools provide more opportunity for choice and fresh starts, but quality varies. By allowing students and families to select specific publicly funded schools, individual students can choose to attend schools that better address their needs. In fact, charter schools in some communities have been effective at blending the children of new community members with the children of longer-term community members because of their new and neutral context. But the value of charter schools varies, and chartering authorities must be held accountable for ensuring quality charter school options.
  • The role of traditional neighborhood schools is changing in many places. In places where school choice has expanded, enrollment in many traditional neighborhood schools has declined.  Disinvestment in less desirable schools may reinforce longstanding class and racial divides, and result in fewer resources for those schools. When demand shifts away from a particular school, care must be taken to address the needs of remaining students who may be among the most vulnerable. But changing schools is not always preferable; families in a variety of cities, including Baltimore, Denver, New Orleans, and Washington, DC, have expressed a desire for stability in their children’s schooling, even if they have to sacrifice some quality to get it.
  • Washington can help to create collaborative relationships between schools and community developers. Cooperation between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Education could bring about programs and initiatives that support students holistically at home, school, and everywhere in between, as well as provide more integrated data systems to better track beneficiaries and services. Flexible funding on the federal through the local level would provide greater opportunity for identifying and addressing differential needs and outcomes for individual students.

Urban is working to shape these lessons into real-life solutions. We are studying federal and philanthropic community development initiatives, like Family Centered Community Change,Choice Neighborhoods, and Promise Neighborhoods, that work with traditional and charter schools to achieve neighborhood transformation. We are also studying the efforts of affordable housing providers, including some who are the biggest landlords in their respective cities, to improve the educational outcomes of their youngest tenants.

Moving forward, we will share lessons from these efforts and others to identify opportunities for policy reform.

Playground photo from Shutterstock


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


This is good to see that you are developing a body of knowledge in this area of community development. On average, it seems that our institutions, internal bureaucracies and our own professional affiliations still perpetuate silos. This is not only obvious between the formal, legal and jurisdictional divides between such institutions as school districts, cities and counties but is emulated through the differences in understanding community issues depending upon our individual vantage point and professional training. In general terms, as either K-12 educators, city managers, urban planners, economic developers, workforce development officials, small business operators, developers, and/or community activists, participants tend to view community development from their own narrow focus. Agreeing on what needs to be done is difficult enough? It could be argued that agreeing on whose responsibility it is to get it done is even more difficult. Sharing responsibility and authority, sometimes hampered by the legal confines of our own institutional and professional parameters, takes a major effort mostly predicated on trust and a common understanding of common community priorities. Sharing authority may mean sharing power. Sharing power may be perceived as a loss of authority by some and thus considered a threat. This makes collaboration difficult but it has to be done in order to break down the informal barriers between the players. A restructuring of the informal barriers may actually lead to the legal restructuring of institutions reflecting a governing system more attune to the complexity of today's community development issues.