Urban Schools and the of Challenge Retaining Middle-Class Residents

When I bought a house in the city of Cleveland, one of the constant questions I faced was: “but what about the schools?”

Failing public schools are a problem in urban areas throughout Ohio and in more broadly throughout the country. And that is hindering efforts to repopulate even some of the more fashionable city neighborhoods in places like Cleveland. That was the basic premise of the thesis I just completed for my master’s in urban planning.

Using original research, I explored the extent to which failing public schools undermine neighborhood stability by encouraging residential turnover among middle-class residents. I thought the readers of this blog might be interested in the results.

The Cleveland Public Schools are struggling and they have been for decades. Standardized test scores and graduation rates are inexcusably low. The district is more or less a last resort for families without options. It is highly segregated–70 percent black, 11 percent Hispanic–and terribly poor–every school in the district has a poverty rate exceeding 60 percent.

A great body of education research suggests that schools with such demographics are very unlikely to succeed. Schools that have a mix of income levels, those below 40 percent poverty, are much more likely to be effective.

My research looked at the issue of retaining middle-class Cleveland residents through the scope of education. What would it take to convince middle-class people to raise children in the city? My underlying assumption is that without middle-class buy-in, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will never perform adequately and without adequate performance from the school district, the city will never be truly vibrant.

Here is a summary of the findings from the abstract:

Original research bore out common assumptions about the impact of poorly performing local schools on middle-class tenure in the city. A survey of 271 Near West and Downtown Cleveland residents revealed an overwhelmingly negative perception of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Prospective parents almost universally reported they do not perceive the urban school district to be a viable option for their future children. Only 9 percent reported they would remain in the city and send their children to a public school, given the opportunity. This attitude was reflected as well in the neighborhood’s parents, a clear majority of which (65 percent) reported their children are enrolled in private schools.

It is easy to see how this negative perception of the public school system could hinder residential and neighborhood stability. About 72 percent of those surveyed said they either “had not reached the stage in their life for children,” or had children that have not reached school age. A total of 62 percent of this population said they would move to a suburban district when the time came, or that they “weren’t sure” whether they would move or stay.

A supporting real estate analysis, although limited in scope, showed that 66 percent of neighborhood residents who sold homes valued at $100,000 or more relocated to a suburban municipality.

These results have important implications for these four “emerging neighborhoods.” Advocates of urban revitalization in Cleveland should be focused on helping ensure the local school system is considered a viable option among middle-class residents in order to prevent residential turnover and the resulting decline in real estate values.

The full report is available at http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=csu1295884532.

Also, in a coming post I will share the story of a group of city parents who have banded together to form their own charter school.

-Angie Schmitt


Filed under Headline, Public Education

17 responses to “Urban Schools and the of Challenge Retaining Middle-Class Residents

  1. Great article, Angie. While middle class families with school-aged children are a critical demographic for any city, I do believe cities can thrive in spite of poor schools. Middle class families, by and large, continue to flee from cities across the country, yet some of those cities are still able to thrive and remain vibrant. The demographics contributing to this relative stability include childless couples, artists, new immigrants, empty nesters, gays and lesbians and others who don’t necessarily depend upon public schools but desire a gratifying urban lifestyle. These are segments that Rust Belt cities need to target better. Of course attracting these groups also depends upon the availability of jobs, which is the perennial challenge for cities like ours. I wish there were an easy solution.

    That is not to say that families with kids aren’t important– they are. But middle class families with school-aged kids are not flocking to ANY major city. If they do, it certainly isn’t for their public schools.

  2. schmange

    That is true. But we’re only talking about retaining the current residents here. This research indicates the city will lose more than 50 percent of its middle class residents as a result of one issue: schools.

    The city will be in a constant cycle of attracting and losing residents unless it gets a handle on this issue. That is what has been happening in Cleveland. Furthermore, these “gentrifying” neighborhoods are our best hope regionally for true economic diversity in schools–which are supposed to be a vehicle for upward mobility, but instead serve to perpetuate inequality on racial and economic grounds.

    If CPS continues to fail more than 20,000 children, Cleveland will suffer. Make no mistake.

  3. schmange

    Randy, sorry if I sound a little testy in these exchanges, I’m just argumentative and I like your perspective. You know I love you and your brother to death right?

  4. Love you too, Angie! We had a great time showing Kate around STL. I told her that I love the perspective the two of you bring to Rustbelt cities. You’re doing a great service to the region! The school issue is so big that it overwhelms me. We definitely agree more than we disagree on this (and every) issue. Keep up the GREAT work! And get your Cleveland crew to STL soon, will ya!

  5. Kristi Gandrud

    This is a really interesting article, Angie. I feel like the elephant in the room with urban school districts in America is how certain blocks of school funding are tied to local property taxes. I suspect that remedying this would be a quick and obvious way of correcting some of the resource imbalances that plague failing urban schools–and would help middle-class families to keep their kids in urban public schools.

  6. Special K

    I feel like public schools -and race- are truly the elephant in the room in almost any discussion about cities. Fixing schools is so critical.

  7. Sarah Hartley

    Based on the situation in Toledo, I’d say that charter schools are the way to go. The teacher union is more focused on benefits and salary and protecting the status quo than doing anything new or innovative. Even “good,” motivated teachers would be bucking their union and peer pressure to employ “out of the box” ideas, assume extra duties, etc. For example, because a local pubolic high school does not have a paid position for a faculty member to supervise after-shool clubs, they simply don’t have many after-school clubs anymore. In other words, no teacher “volunteers” to do it.

    I am a commuity based counselor with a mental health agency and I go into the schools to do therapy — but not the public schools — only charter schools. That’s because the union won’t let us in the public schools. Never mind that they have one counselor for 2-3 or 4 schools and they do not really do therapy, only address major disciplinary disruptions, for the most part.

    I do into charter schools and the staff have more passion for their work, there is more parental involvement, there is a higher standard of discipline. Some schools focus on special segments that excite kids and families — the arts, science, ecology, or are religious schools that also focus on volunteerism and a higher purpose. Families have more input and can get more involved in charter schools and this helps make successful schools. Anyway, charter schools may be the salvation for urban school woes — especially ones targeted to the needs of the families and communities.

  8. Justin

    Thanks for the article. I think that perception is part of the problem; brilliant people throughout American history came from “subpar” schools. I think the problem has more than one source and requires more than just “fixing” the public school systems in urban America.

  9. schmange

    Yeah, Justin. I agree. Actually in the course of my research I learned that, statistically speaking, 91 percent of a child’s educational success is determined by their parents’ educational attainment.

    For some reason, there is a lot of pressure on parents today to send their children to the best schools. I understand why. On the other hand, there’s a lot children miss out on by growing up in what are essentially bedroom communities, in my opinion.

  10. Sarah Hartley

    I agree that the problems are complex. Transportation to and from school is also a big problem. Toledo is so broke that busing is very limited. Grandmothers raising kids, very young mothers, (all parents) need to bundle kids up and walk with them to school (toting along even younger sibs), in sub-freezing temperatures through mounds of snow and ice. Older kids are supposed to wait in these conditions for city buses. Bottom line: they skip school A LOT. Longterm, it is sure to hurt HS graduation rates. I’ve had kids tell me they were going to skip school the next day because it was supposed to rain and they do not have umbrellas. And the moms (there are rarely dads) allow it. Attendance does not seem to be valued because moms are either too uninvolved or their lives are too overwhelming for them to make sure their kids get to school. (I have a caseload of about 45 kids and only about 5 families have cars.)I can see how people have prospered despite having substandard schools, but what about if they don’t even attend?

    On the subject of attendance, when kids misbehave at school, the consequence is suspension. They never bring home the schoolwork they are missing. So their “punishment” is staying home and watching daytime TV or playing video games all day. Anyway, there is a large number of kids not even attending school or making up the work. And nobody in the public schools is really squawking about it. These kids are just passed along to the next highest grade. When we worry about competing with other countries, school attendance is a big factor in which we are going to lose out.

  11. Urban public school funding and infrastructure are only part of the problem. Family and home life are perhaps the biggest factors in low achievement in city schools. Apathetic/absent parents is probably the single biggest detriment to a child’s success in life. Sadly, many urban school students are essentially raising themselves. Even if the schools were excellent, they are at an inherent disadvantage.

  12. Sean Posey

    Much of the social fabric in many Cleveland neighborhoods, especially in the central city, has been destroyed. Take a look at the unemployment rate for black males in Cleveland sometime, it is over twice the rate for whites. Several generations of widespread joblessness in the inner city has created neighborhoods were meaningful and even marginally well-compensated work is nonexistent.

    Children growing up in these conditions experience a detachment from the everyday work world. Sometimes, they may know few people working at all. Also, thanks to apartheid schooling, they will attend the worst schools with the most decrepit facilities. All this contributes to an atmosphere where education and learning seems to have little relevance. In my opinion, and the opinion of other urban theorists like William Julius Wilson, social isolation is a huge factor. Even children who do manage to get an education in these schools will find that the job market is in the suburbs and exurbs, not anywhere near them.

    We should also look at efforts to increase the social capital of parents of inner city school children. The weight of deindustrialization and the disappearance of work have undermined many of the social institutions in the city. A lack of economically stable and secure families weighs heavily on schools, as it does on other urban institutions.

    As far as charter schools go, there is not a lot of evidence that they are not the silver bullets we have been looking for. However, a plethora of studies do link charter schools to either an increase in racial segregation in schooling or to re-segregation in schools districts that were previously somewhat integrated.

  13. Justin

    Sean said, “Children growing up in these conditions experience a detachment from the everyday work world. Sometimes, they may know few people working at all. Also, thanks to apartheid schooling, they will attend the worst schools with the most decrepit facilities”

    YES. Which is why mentoring is so important. Go to http://www.bbbsa.org and see how you can remove the roadblock of isolation and expose a child to something they may never see at home.

    Unfortunately, there’s not enough political will for someone to say, “We’re going to mix things up and make sure each school has equal funding and each school is proportional to the others in terms of socio-economic and ethnic composition.” That’s the kind of educational reform we need, and I bet it would be a lot cheaper than what we’re doing now.

  14. Sarah Hartley

    I agree with Sean and Justin that many kids see no parents working and are not attuned to the world of work, getting places on time, consistent attendance, etc.

    In terms of segregation, I visit one school that has predominantly African American students and one school that is mainly Hispanic (Mexican descent specifically. I see a lot of ethnic pride in these kids — comfortable with their heritage and proud of who they are. I am not in favor of segregating people by race, but these schools seem to be thriving with an Africentric mode and Hispanic mode. I do think choices are a good idea. Both schools have pretty strict discipline. At the Africentric school they call all the teachers Miss ____ or Mr. ______ and the teachers call each other this as well. It is a pride-instilling tone and there ARE some Caucasian children at these schools, they are just the minority. I have visited an Africentric after-school program in Columbus that celebrates African American historical figures and promotes literacy, math and computer experience, alcohol and drug prevention and character development. These kids can’t wait to go to the center after school and are focused on achievement. It is very cool.

  15. Sean Posey


    Do we really want to live in an educationally segregated society? What does that say about us as a country?

  16. Pingback: Urban Schools are the Challenge in Retaining Middle Class Residents | DFW REimagined – The future of real estate

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