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Inspiring stories from Portland and Chicago highlight the importance of coordinating public housing redevelopment and school reform efforts

On November 17, 2005, the “Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities” forum revisited a topic explored last year with local policymakers and national experts from Atlanta: the role of quality schools and education opportunities when redeveloping public housing into mixed-income communities.

At the forum, MPC also released its November 2005 CHA Plan for Transformation Update .

That first forum included Terry Peterson, CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, Barbara Eason-Watkins, chief education officer of the Chicago Public Schools, Renee Glover, executive director of the Atlanta Housing Authority, and Norman Johnson, founder of the Centennial Place school in Atlanta. Those panelists and their audience looked at local collaborations between CPS and CHA, including the launch of the MidSouth Plan, and learned best practices from Atlanta. One year and a half later, experts explored this topic in the context of Chicago’s more recent public school reform efforts and listened to lessons learned on-the-ground locally and in Portland, Ore.

Moderator Warren Chapman, Chase' vice president of corporate philanthropy and an MPC Board member, began by reminding the audience that the strong connection between quality schools and successful mixed-income communities has been highlighted by a number of recent studies (downloadable at MPC’s “Public Housing in the Public Interest” site ). More recently, Chapman continued, proposed legislation to reauthorize the HOPE VI program (one of the key funding tools for public housing authorities transforming their housing stock into mixed-income housing) has explicitly introduced the need to connect local school and public housing revitalization, requiring every HOPE VI grant recipient to establish a comprehensive education reform and achievement strategy to turn the school that serves the new development into a high-performing school.

“Many of us,” asserted Chapman, “know first hand how important quality educational opportunities are for the success of individual and communities, and how crucial is the support of private, public and civic partners to guarantee that those quality opportunities are enhanced and sustained over time." Accoding to Chapman, schools are educational institutions, but also gathering places, community anchors and indicators of a neighborhoods health and appeal: "There aren’t great neighborhoods without great schools: that’s why a viable Plan for Transformation needs to be coordinated with school reform plans." Before introducing the panel, Chapman asked panelists to “dream a little,” and articulate what they might need from the audience and other stakeholders to achieve their common goals .

From left to right: Tim Knowles (Center for Urban School Improvement), Meghan Harte (CHA), Warren Chapman (Chase and MPC Board of Governors), MarySue Barrett (MPC), Vicki Phillips (Portland Public Schools), and Arne Duncan (Chicago Public Schools)

Panel presentations started with remarks from two key policymakers working to transform troubled Chicago neighborhoods into stable communities, anchored by quality housing and schools.

  • Meghan Harte, Managing Director of Resident Services at the CHA
  • Arne Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools

Standing in for CHA CEO Terry Peterson, Harte started pointing out that mixed-income communities are not different from any other neighborhood in that they need quality schools nearby to thrive. Such schools should provide an array of services beyond education, including daycare, youth activities, community centers, and technology hubs. Mixed-income communities are very diverse and one-size-fits-all approaches are unlikely to work, said Harte. “CHA is not an expert in schools,” she acknowledged, “and that’s why our partnership with CPS is key.”

Major public housing and school reform efforts happening simultaneously in Chicago open up a world of challenges and opportunities in a city historically marked by racial and economic segregation. Arne Duncan’s list of elements that make a school successful included a good academic curriculum, early-childhood programs, after-schools activities, and services that link the school to the surrounding community. All these elements are considered when proposals to create Renaissance 2010 schools are evaluated. Renaissance 2010 is a citywide effort to open 100 new quality schools by the beginning of next decade, and now includes the initial goals and lessons learned in the MidSouth Plan. The initiative encourages private sector and civic organizations to submit proposals to sponsor and start new schools.

According to Duncan, one of the most important factors to guarantee functioning schools is getting parents involved in school life and governance. “We need to change a culture that identifies parent involvement with dropping the kids at school on time in the morning and picking them up after school hours”

Some examples of successful schools near public housing sites in redevelopment include Dodge near Westhaven, and Terrell and Williams, located along the State Street corridor. The three of them reopened recently and, in some cases, returning kids are doing up to 15 times better in their tests and attendance than before the closings, Duncan pointed out . Another hopeful example is Smyth School , near the Roosevelt Square community (formerly ABLA), which was awarded an International Baccalaureate Program.

After the local policymakers presentations, Chapman introduced two seasoned experts with first-hand experiences on school revitalization around mixed-income communities:

  • Vicki Phillips, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools (PPS)
  • Tim Knowles, Executive Director of the University of Chicago Center for Urban School Improvement (USI)

Vicki Phillips started her presentation sharing with the audience her experience as a child born in a low-income family. “No principal at elementary school ever told me that I could one day go to the university, and even my parents discourage me from entertaining the idea: it was through personal exposure to other kids in a mixed-income high-school that I found the support and hope I needed.” Ultimately, it was her exposure to kids from more diversified backgrounds, and one of her college-bound friends, that insisted she should also take college entrance exams.

Through her career, Dr. Phillips learned that, unfortunately, most of the times we only respond to poverty when a big catastrophe (such as hurricane Katrina) strikes, and we lack long-term strategies to fight poverty on a daily basis. As one of the senior leaders of the Kentucky Dept. of Education, Dr. Phillips helped implement the Education Reform Act which, for the first time, mandated schools with 40% of kids or more living below poverty levels to collocate supportive services within or nearby the school facility. Later on, while working as Superintendent of the Lancaster Schools in Pennsylvania, she learned the hard way the high price that a community must pay when structural damage affects a major school building: 1,500 students had to relocate from McCaskey East High School, and effort that succeeded only through the tireless commitment and support of parents and community members.

In Portland, the Public Housing Authority was the driver of the New Columbia redevelopment effort, which in the next years is expected to produce an 850-unit mixed-income community. When Portland Public Schools was approached by the housing authority to help with the redevelopment of the on-site school , Dr. Phillips confronted a dilemma: in a time of budget cuts, should the school district invest in creating a new school from scratch for a neighborhood “in construction” where most residents were being relocated to other areas, or should they use their scarce resources to assist the overcrowded schools in other city neighborhoods?

PPS decided to take the risk and invest in the new school, due to a great extent to the strong partners participating in this endeavor: the housing authority, the city’s Parks and Recreation Bureau and the Boys and Girls Club. Through this creative partnership, PPS was able to leverage a “patchwork of grants and funding tools”, including New Markets Tax Credits ( Portland is the first city in the country to use these credits to create a new school) which helped reduce the campus redevelopment costs from $21 to $16 million.

Strong leadership, committed staff and a will to coordinate education and services are the three ingredients that Dr. Phillips considered basic in this effort. “Never say never” and “One child at a time” were the two mottos that are made plans move along from the feasibility study to the actual site development.

Tim Knowles used the example of Boston ’s “pilot schools” to explain how in this city, mixed-income schools were created “by accident” thanks to state legislation introducing flexibility principles to be applied to:

- hiring and firing

- use of resources

- length of school day and season

- governance

- policy

This new flexibility ended with a culture that promoted a “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving school problems throughout the district. Pilot schools in troubled or transitioning neighborhoods achieved better results than others in every indicator, attracted creative and motivated staff and, indirectly, achieved a mix of incomes and ethnic backgrounds: many middle-class African-American and Latino families who could opt for parochial schools decided to enroll their kids in these “pilots.” In Chicago , the philosophy behind Renaissance 2010 is also based in flexibility and choice, asserted Mr. Knowles. He also pointed out that, although we cannot make the success of schools depend on attracting middle-class kids, when this attraction happens it plays a crucial role.

The University of Chicago Center of Urban School Improvement (USI) operates two schools, North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO) at 46 th St. and Woodlawn, and Donoghue Charter at 37 th St. and Cottage Grove . Recently, USI received a $5 million endowment grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Over time, USI’s goal is to create a network of quality schools in Chicago ’s Mid-South area which, once in place, will lead to radical, not incremental changes.

The three main goals of USI’s schools, according to Mr. Knowles, are:

- provide quality education to kids, starting college preparation at an early age

- provide professional development opportunities for teachers

- support the community around the school, which usually lacks strong institutions

Despite the huge differences in funding between urban and suburban schools ( Chicago spends an average $5,500 per child per year vs. suburban districts spending up to $18,000), the NKO School outperformed schools from throughout the state in writing tests.

After the presentations by panelists, Warren Chapman moderated a Q&A session which included the following:

- How do CHA and CPS coordinate their work?

- Meghan Harte: With two huge and complex citywide efforts such as the CHA Plan for Transformation and Renaissance 2010 happening at the same time, it is very difficult to coordinate timetables perfectly, but progress is being made. In Donoghue, for instance, the school was getting ready to open last September at the same time that families were returning to redeveloped public housing. The developer, The Community Builders, helped with coordination and outreach and worked with school reps to obtain flexibility in enrolment requirements. As we move forward, we’d like to see more of this. Also, kids moving out of public housing to be demolished should go through a smooth transition process and, if possible, keep using their school of origin.

- Arne Duncan: Another problem we are finding in terms of coordination is how to respond to the large numbers of families relocating to a handful of South Side neighborhoods such as South Shore. Many schools in these neighborhoods are operating at maximum capacity, and the State has frozen funding for capital improvements.

- Will teachers be prepared to deal with a mix of incomes and cultures in the new schools?

- AD: Yes. Through better preparation programs, partnerships with the teachers union and active search of “underused” teachers, we’ll guarantee that schools are served by well-trained professionals. We are proud to say that for every job opening we have 10 applicants to choose from.

- Tim Knowles: At NKO, we asked parents what worried them, and they responded that the school was great, but they were deeply worried about the “trash talk” in the way to and from class every day. Parents wanted more diversity (the vast majority of kids are African-American). Also, they were concerned about the fact that, by concentrating efforts in accelerating kids left behind, those children doing well might not receive sufficient attention. At NKO we are firm believers in keeping kids at different levels in the same class.

- Renters, including CHA families, moving into new mixed-income communities have to meet a 30-hour per week work requirement. How do you plan to help them meet this criterion?

- AD: One key service to provide is early childhood programs and daycare for these families, as well as longer school days that allow kids not to be alone while their parents are working

- What do you say to “market-rate” families to attract them to schools previously populated almost exclusively by public housing kids?

- AD : You need to have a group of committed parents to help shape these communities. Also, parents are attracted to quality. Many parents are sending their kids to Sudder School , in the heart of the West Side , near the former Henry Horner Homes, because of its quality.

- TK: You have to tell parents to come and look for themselves. Pre-school opportunities are key: getting families into the schools network as soon as possible helps attracting them later to public schools and high schools. Also, parents want to be offered not just a school, but a trajectory, or better, a menu of pathways from pre-school to college for their kids.

- Do you think that test scores are a valid measure of success?

AD: 20 years ago we were the worst school system in America . Today, the changes in our district cannot be grasped jut by looking at test scores: attendance rates and satisfaction measures are very important too.


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