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Neighborhood schools are being gentrified, but they don't have to be

Individuals moving into rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods should take a step back to determine how to leverage their social capital for the benefit of the entire community and not just their children and the families in their networks.
Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids /Elizabeth Rogers Drouillard

An issue that is becoming rapidly important to the Grand Rapids community is the gentrification of neighborhood elementary schools. No one quite understands how it happens, or even why it happens. All we know up to this point is that homes in economically marginalized areas start selling and ultimately, low income families and families of color end up getting pushed out of these schools. One explanation for this occurrence can be attributed to individuals who possess ample, effective social capital that lends itself to robust networks. These networks are able to be deployed in order to manifest the will of an individual and/or small group of people as well as to engineer community spaces.

Social capital is defined by Google Dictionary as “the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.” It is amassed throughout our lifetimes and is to be leveraged like any other form of capital: to bring us information, opportunity, and resources. Social capital is exchanged among one another and serves as the building blocks of our networks and the lack of it is why entire populations become displaced. To go a level deeper, it is why they are even in a position to become displaced.  

The individuals moving into these “forgotten up until now” geographic communities truly are well-meaning in that their concerns are centered on being able to send their children to their neighborhood schools. Mostly parents, they set out to help "fix" the schools and make them a place where they can be proud to send their children. But is how they do this that’s the issue. They leverage their social capital, which may include members of the school district administration instead of building relationships with individuals who work in the buildings. They do this through neighborhood associations and local small businesses who, again, are well-meaning in that they want to see property values increase. They pool their collective social capital which may include reporters and media personnel who are able to give them editorial space and publish articles which serve as signals with regard to the direction in which the neighborhood is heading. They also have relationships with city and elected officials, developers, and other parents who think and feel the same way they do. They are then able to socially engineer the school environment from the outside, sometimes never having set foot inside it, until it is exactly how they want it to be for their children.

As the parent of a first-grader, I completely understand a parent’s concern around education and the conditions in which the learning process takes place. Test scores and parent involvement are two modes that measure a school’s performance and are usually what parents cite when asked why they chose to send their child to a school other than the neighborhood school. Yet, I would argue that these two manifestations alone do not capture the work that is taking place inside the building. They don’t factor in the principal who knows the name of every student, the teacher who supports their students in activities that are not school-related, nor does it tell the story of the parents who volunteer entire days or the numerous community partners who come to raise awareness on issues such as biking safely to school and opportunities for parents to increase their individual capacity.

As with all things, intention matters. Individuals moving into rapidly-gentrifying neighborhoods should take a step back in order to determine how to leverage their social capital for the benefit of the entire community and not just their children and the families in their networks. This would look like building and fostering relationships with current residents, parents, students, and educators in order to come up with solutions that allows the rising tide to lift all boats. To have the ear of higher-ups and to be able to get them to act is a big deal and creates a movement which almost always has a disparate impact on those without this level of social access. But to have the community behind you, with you, supporting what they helped build, all the while thickening everyone’s networks, is the revolution!


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