How Gentrification Is Tearing Stable School Communities Apart

By Kate Steele

Philadelphia is said to be a city of neighborhoods, of brotherly love and sisterly affection. Yet despite this PR campaign, Philadelphia is also one of the most unequal, segregated cities — with some of the grossest inequality in schools of urban districts nationwide. In a city that boasts blue-ribbon schools, less fortunate students are going to school in building with conditions that could be considered inhumane, full of mold, lead and asbestos. The existing inequality created by lack of affordable housing access is exacerbated by official and unofficial policies of the Philadelphia School District. 

Last year, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania reported that 3,522 students enrolled in Philadelphia School District schools experienced homelessness. That is around 1.6% of the total enrollment. According to the McKinney-Vento act, homelessness means “anyone lacking a fixed, adequate, regular nighttime residence.” In addition to students who are considered “homeless,” The New Republic reported that there are thousands of students in Philadelphia schools who are housing insecure. This loose term includes students who are dealing with chronic evictions, move frequently, or are living somewhere temporarily but have not been identified as “homeless.” This number is not measured, nor does the city or district track how students move within the district, charter schools, or close-by suburbs. We only have anecdotal evidence of this, but almost any teacher will tell you about the constant churning of student transience throughout the year. Schools in neighborhoods adjacent to rapid gentrification are likely dealing with high numbers of transience, as are schools near new charter openings. But again, information about individual schools’ perceptions of housing-insecure students is not collected on a district-wide level. 

There’s another element that affects Philadelphia students who are facing the dual problems of  the educational equity battle and the affordable housing struggle. The Philadelphia School District’s vision statement asserts that they work for “…all children to have access to a great school, close to where they live.” Because of Philadelphia’s neighborhood catchment system, students go to their neighborhood schools. The catchment map is periodically redrawn, such as when schools are closed or turned to city-wide enrollment charters, but the idea of the neighborhood catchments is that students should be able to walk to their school. But what happens when your family is forced to move because affordable housing is increasingly hard to find? At increasing rates that are not in any way being recorded or tracked, students are moving out of their neighborhood catchments but finding ways to stay at that school — even if it means long commutes or lying about their address. Part of the reason for this is the schools that are improving most rapidly in climate and academics are in neighborhoods that are gentrifying. This undoubtedly affects school climate and community for the existing students, student outcomes and neighborhood stability.

There is a lot of research about how a stable school community supports students, especially students coming from traumatized backgrounds. When your teachers and your school are a constant, and you have the one teacher from years ago that you can still go and hang out with on a hard day, your entire outlook on school can change. School can become a safe space when students have a consistent, familiar group of people supporting them. 

Until the 2000s, neighborhoods in Philadelphia had high rates of home ownership, and thus low rates of transition from neighborhood to neighborhood. Across this city, multiple generations in each neighborhood was common. This fact was pervasive across race and class lines. Within that context, the idea of neighborhood catchment makes sense — everyone walks to school, and your school community is made up largely of people you know. This is changing rapidly, as homeownership rates around the country drop and the gap between Black and white homeownership in Philadelphia increases. 

However, the Philadelphia we were is not the Philly we are. With massive influx of real estate investment and skyrocketing rental prices, there is an increasingly transient student population as families are forced to move. Simultaneously, the school district is subtly changing their enrollment policies to clamp down on students attending a school outside of their neighborhood catchment or relying on the unofficial “sibling preference” allowance that let siblings stay at the same school regardless of catchment. As schools “improve” according to metrics that look almost entirely at test scores and behavior referrals, the district starts identifying students from out of catchment in these schools, and they do away with these unofficial policies. 

The school district argues that it enforces catchment to cut down on truancy. The idea is that students who commute long distances are more likely to miss school. This could be an incorrect assumption, as generally students who are truant are more heavily scrutinized and issues with their address are more likely to be discovered. At schools that are known to be improving according to district metrics, many families will use an old address or the address of a family member to ensure their kid can go to this “better” school in their old neighborhood. At some schools in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods of the city, it is very difficult to see on paper how many of those students live out of the catchment, because parents are covering their tracks to do what is best for their children. In talking with other parents and looking at the high schools with city-wide enrollment, many students traveling across the city make it to school on time. Truancy may not actually be directly correlated to commute, and without data to support this claim it is difficult to say one way or the other.

Research has shown that students are negatively impacted when they change schools. Socially and emotionally, school instability — in both staff and student turnover — can greatly harm student learning. For younger grades, losing or integrating new students once school has started can be an emotionally taxing process for the whole classroom. Year to year, students want to know who will be in their classes and in their building. If they start at a school, they should have the option to stay at that school, in that school community, until the parent chooses to take them out. The district’s new focus on verifying addresses will actually create greater instability.

Families all over the city are struggling to make sure their kids can receive a strong, free, public education. In the meantime, the Philadelphia School District should be at the forefront of the fight for affordable housing and community stability. If the mission is to provide quality education to all our students, we must as a city understand that education requires safe and stable learning environments at school and at home.

Photo: The original West Philadelphia High School is being replaced by luxury lofts, in a deal that lost the school district money. Photo by Suzy Subways.

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