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Are We There Yet? Conditions Of Learning

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Editor's Note: School quality is only one measure of complete communities. This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? looks at the non-school factors – neighborhood quality and safety, the availability of affordable transportation, and access to healthcare, after-school programs, open space and cultural assets, and parental involvement – that impact the opportunities of children to succeed.

Test scores have become the most common method used to assess school quality, even though decades of social science research suggest there are other critical factors that will help determine whether a child succeeds. “The quality of schools can explain about one-third of the variation in student achievement whereas two-thirds is due to ‘non-school’ factors such as neighborhood quality and safety, the availability of affordable transportation, and access to healthcare, after-school programs, open space and cultural assets, and parental involvement,” writes Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, in a 2010 report entitled “How to Fix Our Schools.”

There are at least two other factors: The first is that the most recent census data shows that the number of single parents is increasing, which may mean the family’s financial resources are constrained and that parents are less able to pay for educational enrichment activities such as tutors, music instruction or participation on a sports team. And the spatial mismatch between where families live and where their children attend school may mean their children are in unfamiliar neighborhoods, that arranging playdates is difficult because too much driving is required, that they may have to spend a lot of time in after-school care instead of going home, and that so much time is spent traveling to and from school that parents have little time to cook dinner, spend time with their children, or help them with homework — all factors that contribute to whether children can reach their potential.

Jeff Vincent of California’s Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley is among those who believe that where a school is sited has an important and underacknowledged impact on school quality. This means, he says, that it is essential to coordinate school planning with planning for complete communities and also that school officials consider the urban context and built environment in which schools will be located, as well as how students will get to school and whether they can walk and bike.

The learning environment is significantly enriched when the community in which a school is located has supportive community services and after-school programs, parks, recreation centers, libraries, and stores with affordable and healthy food. At the very least we must work to ensure that neighborhoods are safe places where kids can run and bike on the streets, meet friends and hang out. If there’s transit, older children and teens can become independent, allowing them to engage in after-school activities, meet with friends, and get back home even if their parents still have to work. Communities with these attributes can lower family stress and enhance stability by providing a supportive network and safety net.

Vincent notes that while public schools have historically been built as large facilities on large sites, there is increasing interest in building smaller schools on urban infill sites. The EPA is revising its guidelines for new school site selection. Previously minimum acreage requirements caused officials to build new schools on the outer edges of cities because that’s where there was land that was undeveloped, inexpensive, and available. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, these policies caused the number of schools in the U.S. to fall from 262,000 in 1930 to 95,000 in 2004 — even as the number of students doubled.

“The point is that the policy tools that enable complete communities also create the conditions for learning,” says Vincent, adding that a school can become a place where the entire community can come together. Because of this, he says, there is increasing interest in turning schools into mixed-use facilities with the goal of truly making them a hub of activity by providing extended hours before and after school and during the weekends and the summer, and including academic and non-academic services such as social services and activities that engage parents and the entire community.

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