Housing, a Game-Changer in Atlanta Classrooms

The nine-hole golf course at the Charles R. Drew Charter School sees a lot of use during an average school day. Gym teachers hold classes there, and students at this elementary and middle school in Atlanta’s East Lake district can take the sport as an elective. The school’s championship team has even seen star players go on to earn college scholarships.

That golf is a dedicated subject at a Southern school isn’t exactly remarkable — but how this came to be certainly is.

Two decades ago, the course was shuttered and as decrepit as the housing project, East Lake Meadows, which sat on the course’s edge. The project had more broken windows than intact ones. Residents openly bought, sold and used illegal drugs on the trash-strewn grounds. Roughly 90% of residents had been victims of violent crimes, and only 5% of fifth-graders at the local elementary school met state math standards. Predictably, the area had seen no private investment in 40 years.

“The longer (children) stayed in their neighborhood schools, the further behind they fell,” said Carol Naughton, senior vice president of Purpose Built Communities, a consulting firm that helps revitalize neighborhoods and which grew out of the stunning success at East Lake.

Today, because of Purpose Built Communities and the efforts of local organizations, the Drew elementary school ranks No. 1 of 70 in Atlanta. The middle school is No. 3 of 19, and high school graduation rates have soared. The remarkable results reflect what researchers have been trumpeting for years: Sound housing is as critical to educational success as the instructors in the classrooms and the resources used to teach children.

The changes in Atlanta began with a single newspaper column in 1993: Developer Tom Cousins was shocked to read that 70% of prisoners in New York state prisons came from just eight New York City neighborhoods. Cousins wondered whether what happened in New York festered in Georgia, too. He investigated and found that East Lake Meadows was a major feeder for Georgia state prisons.

Cousins decided to bring together a coalition of leaders to help reimagine the neighborhood and schools. His partners ranged from the head of Atlanta’s housing authority to a tenants group leader at East Meadows. They created a “holistic” approach to changing the community, which included the creation of high quality mixed-income housing, a “cradle to grave” college pipeline and wellness services.

Seven years after Cousins had his epiphany, the school opened.

East Lake adopted a longer school day and year; the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) curriculum; and collaborated with businesses, community centers and universities. Drew’s recently opened high school is already on track to be as successful as the school’s lower grades.

Planning for the revitalization project included securing private and community funds as well as those from the city. Evidence-based education programs were employed. For example, teachers at two neighborhood early learning programs that feed Drew go through rigorous training designed to help close an estimated 30 million-word gap between what low-income children hear before age five compared with children from higher-income families.

Even as the results at Drew speak for themselves, developers in just a few communities across the country have taken the lead in revitalizing such failing schools — although such partnerships are sorely needed. Do Federally Assisted Households Have Access to High-Performing Public Schools, a 2014 study funded by the MacArthur Foundation, found that even with housing assistance, many low-income families cannot afford to live in areas with strong school districts.

That’s where Purpose Built Communities comes in with the expertise and guidance to change the trajectory of so many lives. The organization has even crafted some guidelines for successful education systems in these revitalized communities. They include:

  • A neighborhood focus, with local control
  • Principals empowered to make performance-driven hiring decisions
  • High quality teachers committed to the school’s success
  • Extended school days and school year
  • Rigorous and relevant educational curriculum
  • Relentless focus on outcomes to ensure continued excellence

Indeed, this is a model of development that is working, one reflected not just in the impressive data, but in the beaming faces of children whose futures are suddenly a whole lot brighter.