Photo from  woodleywonderworks

Why are we talking about schools at Strong Towns this week? It seems like a veer away from our typical topics of transportation, land use and municipal finance. And yet, schools are also quite closely entwined with those and other key issues that we at Strong Towns are concerned with:

  • School location has a direct impact on the financial and physical health of our towns.
  • Schools are also a prominent feature of the built environment in many neighborhoods.
  • For families with children, schools are as much a part of their lives as homes and workplaces.

Additionally, and maybe most important of all, strong towns need educated citizens. That’s why we thought it was important and timely to have a conversation about the role of schools in our cities.

This week, we talked about inner city schools and public perception of those schools. For middle income families (especially millennial families) who want to live in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, “good” schools are often the one thing they won’t compromise on. They’ll live in a small duplex, forgo a car, even tolerate higher crime in their neighborhoods—but they won’t send their kids to a low-performing school.

Strong Towns member, Steven Shultis blew those preconceived notions out of the water in an essay and interview about living in inner city Springfield, MA and sending his daughters to the low-performing neighborhood school. Steven’s thesis is that bright kids with supportive parents can succeed at any school, and will benefit from the unique opportunities and diverse friendships available in a lower-income neighborhood. So if those neighborhoods are the most appealing to your family because they offer affordable prices and traditional development styles, go for it.

Maybe instead of creating national programs with million dollar budgets to try to remediate this problem of unsafe routes to school, we could just build our schools on safe routes in the first place.

On the other hand, this week we also talked about the unfortunate preponderance of new mega-schools on the edge of town replacing historic neighborhood schools nestled in residential neighborhoods like the one Steven's children attended. We talked about the multitude of transportation challenges these edge schools creates, not least of which is denying children the opportunity to walk or bike to school and instead, often putting them in the dangerous position of riding in a car. We put forward the idea that maybe instead of creating national programs with million dollar budgets to try to remediate this problem of unsafe routes to school, we could just build our schools on safe routes in the first place.

The challenge of walking or biking to school—something that used to be standard for many young people only decades ago—creates many problems: For school districts, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of dollars go into busing each year (not to mention the responsibility of coordinating routes, pick up and drop off and more). Think what that money could do in the classroom instead. Furthermore, for children who have already seen decreases in recess and outside activities as well as increases in unhealthy food intake over the last couple decades, losing the opportunity to walk or bike to school means losing a precious chance to get daily exercise and build a healthy foundation for their lives. It also means the loss of an opportunity to develop independence and become less reliant on rides from parents to get everywhere.

We will not have strong cities, towns and neighborhoods without school systems aligning their policy approach to that objective. A city trying to rebuild its core neighborhoods -- the most financially productive, resilient and adaptable part of the community -- faces a tremendous uphill battle when the school district is undermining that effort by locating schools on the edge of town and failing to see the school as an integral part of the neighborhood. Doing so not only damages the city and its residents, it's bad business financially for the school district. Efforts to build financially productive towns are also undermined by the stigma of existing inner city schools in traditional urban neighborhoods, which often go neglected and abandoned by wealthier families.

The challenge of improving the American public school system is enormous and complex and our members wrestled with that this week, considering alternative models and questioning the relationship between federal and local control. There are no easy answers. This conversation about building #StrongSchools in tandem with Strong Towns is one we must continue in our own communities. If we believe that Strong Towns are places where people of all ages can be successful, healthy and safe, that should include children and their schools.

(Top photo from Unsplash)

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