Grad student Diana Lempel advocates for a stronger tie between primary education and city planners.
A mural on Dudley Street in Boston. Photo by Diana Lempel.
Every time I see education and schools come up in a planning course or lecture, the response always goes something like this: “Of course, schools are extremely important for neighborhoods and community choice. But I’m a planner, so I don’t have anything to do with improving schools.”
Time and time again, I’ve found that education is acknowledged but set to the side as someone else’s issue, outside the purview or specialty of planners. But now is the perfect time for planners to begin to collaborate with the education field. National attention is on improving education, and neighborhood-based strategies seem to be the key. Even the federal government is supporting place-based initiatives for improving student achievement and neighborhood educational attainment.
Having the feeling that planners might be able to get more involved in this new surge of interest in neighborhood education, I spent time with one initiative that I think represents a clear picture of how this approach could work. It’s the Boston Promise Initiative, which is managed by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI).
You might know about DSNI already: it’s considered a best practice in community-led redevelopment, a staple in planning classes and case studies across the country. The organization formed in the 1980s and is perhaps best known for having received, from the city of Boston, the power of eminent domain in order to redevelop its neighborhood and establish a community land trust for affordable family homeownership. The organization has turned one of Boston’s most distressed neighborhoods into an “Urban Village,” complete with a town common. But it turns out that DSNI has been doing incredible work with youth and schools too, practically since its inception.
“Youth development work is something that grew very organically [for DSNI], describes Ros Everdell, Deputy Director of DSNI for Education and Youth. It started with youth-led neighborhood cleanups, but quickly grew. “In the early 1990s was when young people in the neighborhood got involved, along with many of their families. They were looking for a place to do their own work together. They pushed and shoved for their own resources.”
As a result of this early involvement, neighborhood youth were soon incorporated directly into the organization’s structure and mission, serving on DSNI’s board of directors and running a council of their own. The Dudley Youth Council (DYC) organizes neighborhood cleanups, facilitates community meetings, engages in political action for social and environmental justice, and hosts a radio call-in show on issues that affect their lives. In addition to the DYC, DSNI invests in its neighborhood youth by supporting parent-led school advocacy, and providing opportunities for kids to learn about college and career opportunities.
Recently, DSNI has committed to a more thorough effort to improve education for its neighborhood youth. Leveraging its formidable resident engagement network, it has created the Boston Promise Initiative (BPI). The BPI is based on a number of successful programs around the country that incorporate neighborhood strategies into school improvement. The basis for these strategies is deep engagement between schools and families, but also includes building strong ties between nonprofits and school programs. Social services that for kids and families throughout their lives are also a key part of neighborhood education, creating a “cradle to career” system of support for residents.
In addition, DSNI is working with the Boston Public Schools to support their efforts to improve neighborhood schools, which include two that are the focus of restructuring by the district. The neighborhood it is also proposing to create their own new in-district charter school, which will be open to enrollment by all district students but will focus specifically on youth in the DSNI community.
All of these initiatives utilize DSNI’s hallmark resident engagement strategies, with residents and experts sharing responsibilities for issues-based task forces on six topics (see diagram below). Other engagement strategies include direct phone calls and door knocking, community meetings, social media outreach, and youth-led advocacy.
Many of these strategies come together in the neighborhood meetings to discuss the proposed charter school. In one meeting, teachers from the Boston Teacher Residency, a division of the Public School system that nurtures and develops committed urban public school teachers, led a discussion of what components of the school are most important to the community. The meetings have generated a set of principles for how to most effectively meet resident hopes for family and community engagement in the school. Future meetings will develop a “design team” to create clear guidelines for the school’s family engagement strategy.
DSNI sees its work as a process of long-term transformation for the neighborhood. As Everdell explained, “if you aren’t engaging the next generation, then revitalization is a single generation effort.” She described how, when DSNI first started working with residents on affordable homeownership and household stability advocacy, “what residents were thinking about was a place for their family and for their kids to be and thrive, so that the next generation has a chance to stay.” And when you think about neighborhood development that way — as planners could — you naturally have to include education into your strategy.
Another DSNI executive explained this approach to me this way: DSNI sees its community land trust for affordable homeownership as a way to promote “family and community stability” for “generation after generation of low and moderate income families,” with the “neighborhood [as the] context for kids doing better.”
By focusing on how education, support services, and housing stability can work together, DSNI is building a neighborhood of sustained growth in wealth and education, from the inside out. If DSNI were to focus only on housing and service provision, it would not be able to ensure that future generations of neighborhood residents continued to develop new skills and confidence.
DSNI’s work with youth has shown how important youth development can be for community outcomes, so it’s time that planners pay attention.
Here’s a way to think about the BPI, from a planner’s point of view: it envisions the whole neighborhood as an environment for learning. DSNI already has leads tours to visit its historic house museum, community murals, public spaces and community centers. It hosts festivals in community gardens and supports a greenhouse where kids can learn about healthy foods. But Ros Everdell articulates an even broader vision: that the neighborhood would comprise a network of “locations for learning,” both existing and new. As she said:
“The dream is really that it is a place where kids can learn, schools are part but not all of the campus. Destinations and activities that are all about family and children learning, learning in all kinds of ways. Each “stop” on the campus will be a center of excellence. Could be a historic building, could be a park, could be schools, could be stores, It’ll have some distinguishing characteristics that make it a location of learning … Schools aren’t the only place that people learn. We learn in all kinds of places. How do you support that in a neighborhood in visible, active ways?”
Residents, to some extent, already see their neighborhood this way; they shared with me that they consider locations as diverse as gardens, libraries, businesses, historic sites, and commercial sites as opportunities for learning. With a neighborhood school and an increased sense of the importance of learning throughout the neighborhood, you could imagine that this learning might become more shared. But that will require a clear and concerted effort.
My recommendations to DSNI and communities like it suggest what one way of going about that effort might look like:
• Develop a neighborhood-led planning initiative for learning locations: how to share them and identify them, and how to bring needed new additions. This could ultimately include establishing a governing body for the network, such as an independent management conservancy. Consider establishing the DSNCS as the “heart” of the network.
• Support learning-oriented programming in public spaces, such as the Dudley Town Common. This is the key for aligning the “urban village” concept with the “neighborhood learning” vision.
• Increase enrollment at neighborhood-only schools and expand offerings for parents and adults.
• Consider strategies for integrating neighborhood and non-neighborhood residents in schools and throughout the neighborhood network, in order to support civic literacy.
• Ensure that 100% of neighborhood children have neighborhood seats available so that all families can benefit from the community education initiatives.
I see these recommendations as a blueprint for a new alliance between planners and educators in communities across the country. Let schools be seen not just as places for learning but as centers of neighborhoods. Let communities designate networks of resources that they celebrate and learn about together, with coordinated programming, festivals, and public signage to guide visitors. Let there be enough opportunities for a network of residents to send their children to quality local schools if they want to — schools that are plugged into the existing residential and social needs and resources of residents. And let outside residents who come to the community — as students, visitors, or friends — see and learn about a diverse neighborhood with a collective purpose. This is the promise of the Boston Promise Initiative.
Read more from Diana on her blog, http://flaneuserie.wordpress.com/.