Joe Cortright writes for City Observatory. The following essay is republished from his site with permission.


 Source: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

Source: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

In Washington, DC, gentrification is producing higher levels of integration and increasing the total number of kids — black and white — attending schools in changing neighborhoods. DC’s gentrifying neighborhoods have more white residents, more total residents, and more kids attending local schools. These facts discredit the commentary that neighborhood change is an irreversible, zero sum game that inevitably replaces one kind of segregation (low income people of color) with another (rich white enclaves). It suggests that how we manage change — and particularly how we organize urban public education — can have a huge impact on creating neighborhoods that are both more diverse and inclusive.

The dominant narrative of gentrification is displacement:  As neighborhoods change, long-time residents are forced out by newcomers.  The caricature goes something like this:  Young, well-educated white people are moving in to lower income urban neighborhoods, populated primarily by people of color. As these wealthier, whiter, younger singles move in, families of color are displaced, and long time cultural institutions that served the previous population suffer as well.

If there’s a place where this narrative ought to be playing out, it seems like it ought to be Washington, DC. The District has experienced a fairly major demographic shift in the past three decades. Whereas as recently as 2000 the city was 61 percent African-American, today it is much more diverse, and no longer majority African-American.  In addition, the growth of the white population in the District has been concentrated in a number of close-in neighborhoods.

A recent study from the University of California, Los Angeles, looks at enrollment trends in schools in Washington, DC in the neighborhoods most affected by gentrification and discovers a surprising result: these schools have not only become more integrated, but the number of students enrolled in local K-12 schools, including African-American students has actually increased substantially:

Gentrification is actually boosting diversity in DC’s public schools, a new study suggests. While many white parents are still sending their kids away to schools outside of their neighborhood or enrolling them in private institutions, the study shows an increasing number are choosing public schools over charters. However, care must be taken to ensure that traditionally disadvantaged students benefit from the increased diversity.

The full paper, White Growth, Persistent Segregation: Could Gentrification Become Integration? by Kfir Mordechay and Jennifer Ayscue is available online, but let’s take a look at a couple of its key findings.

Declining Segregation in Schools

The study’s headline finding is that school segregation is decreasing in Washington, albeit slowly. The District of Columbia’s schools have long been profoundly segregated; more than 90 percent of students were black in 1990. Roughly 3 in 5 of  the district’s schools were even classified as “hyper-segregated,” with more than 99 percent non-white students.

The study focuses on 11 census tracts in the center of the District that have experienced the greatest gentrification in the past two decades, and tracks enrollment changes at all of the schools within a mile of those census tracts. White enrollment in schools in this area increased from 1 percent of all students to 8 percent from 2000 to 2014.  Although the increase was significant, it’s still the case that many white parents don’t seem to be enrolling their children in their local DC schools; the DC schools in these areas are 8 percent white, but the school age population in these census tracts is 17 percent white, implying that many white parents are sending their children to private schools.

Growing urban enrollments

The buried lede in the story is the increase in school enrollments in most gentrifying neighborhoods of Washington. As these neighborhoods have rebounded, school enrollment has increased sharply. In these neighborhoods, between 2007 and 2014, the number of students enrolled in public schools — including both traditional public schools (TPS) and publicly supported charters — increased from about 15,600 to more than 24,000, or roughly 70 percent.

The study doesn’t explore the reasons behind the increase in school enrollments. Some of it is likely due to the increased population in these neighborhoods associated with the new development in recent years. In addition, it's apparent that the number of schools in this geographic area has increased, with 20 additional charter schools and 7 additional traditional public schools in 2014, compared to 2007.

The District clearly has a long way to go in achieving integrated schools, but these data show that an increase in white students in these neighborhoods hasn’t been accompanied by a decline in the number of black students. Contrary to the usual view that gentrification inevitably leads to fewer kids and fewer kids of color, this shows that neighborhood change is not a kind of zero sum game where new residents invariably displace — one-for-one — previous residents.

Part of the story has to be an expansion of urban education options. Over the past decade, Washington’s public schools have been implementing a program of universal pre-kindergarten education for children living in the District. The availability of publicly provided pre-K for all three- and four-year olds is a major inducement for families to remain in the District and can serve as a “gateway drug” for enrollment in the public school system for higher income families who might otherwise choose private schools or move to the suburbs. Once enrolled in a public pre-K, a parent may find it more convenient (and less uncertain) to have their children continue into public grade schools. In addition, parents with children in pre-K may network with other parents in their neighborhoods and become support groups for one another and advocates for quality in their local schools.

 Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr.

Source: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Samuel King Jr.

The myth of the childless city

For years, city skeptics like Joel Kotkin have been decrying the family-unfriendliness of cities and pointing to declines in the number of children and falling enrollments in many urban school districts:

. . . we have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children. . . .The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class”—a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students—occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

The experience of DC in the past decade suggests that Kotkin is wrong. The urban revival isn’t a zero sum game: cities can attract new residents, especially young adults, and also retain them as they age and have children, and at the same time increase both the diversity and total school enrollments. Additionally, much of white flight and what Robert Reich has called the "secession of the successful," has been caused by (and has in turn amplified) the weakness of urban schools. Strengthening city schools can be a key means of promoting greater demographic diversity and hanging on to families of means who might otherwise take their energy, attention and tax payments to some suburban area.

One of the big unanswered questions about urban revival is whether the young adults who have increasingly concentrated in urban centers in the past couple of decades will continue to live there once they have children. We know that as their children get older, families are less likely to live in central cities. The quality of local public education no doubt plays a critical role in determining the location choices of many families. So, too, does the quantity of education; in Washington’s changing neighborhoods, there have been more schools and more school choices, as well as Pre-K. 

Initiatives that improve education, and particularly interventions like universal early childhood education that engage all families in the local schools at a time when the educational stakes may seem lower could be the key to more diverse, family friendly cities.

(Top photo source: US Department of Education)