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Ed Talk: Social Engineering Was Not Always a Bad Thing

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

People assert “social engineering” to oppose ideas to increase the socioeconomic diversity within our schools or neighborhoods. Where has this indignant outcry been as Arlington County policies “socially engineered” us into the segregated neighborhoods and schools we have today?

“Social engineering” is always applied as though it is necessarily bad. The fact is, all public policies and practices socially shape our communities. Is it “social engineering” per se that people object to? Or the intended results that potentially threaten their status quo?

Arlington County’s development and zoning regulations and housing policies reinforce and perpetuate the same impacts of redlining from decades past. Concentrating affordable housing for the lowest income levels in a few specific areas of the county has created segregated neighborhoods and, by consequence, segregated schools.

We have “socially engineered” ourselves into a situation whereby some schools require a broad range of supportive services not traditionally provided by a public school. To support families, Community in Schools programs are implemented in high-needs, high-poverty schools. Arlington has done so at Carlin Springs Elementary School, and there is support for expanding that model to others.

Some argue it is more efficient to bring services and resources to the schools near where many people in need live and where their children are enrolled. This is not necessarily a bad idea. But even if this is the preferred model, what about children and families in need at more affluent schools where a Community in Schools program is unlikely to be implemented?

A more equitable approach would be to ensure that all services and supports are accessible by any student in need at any school in the district. Intentional segregation should not be implemented for the sake of efficiency. People should not have to live in low-income neighborhoods zoned to a specific school offering the unique services they need. Affordable housing should be sufficiently available throughout the County. Disadvantaged families should be able to send their children to any school and receive the same assistance in accessing the services and programs they need.

Instead, APS has introduced this Community in Schools approach and is likely to implement it in only select schools in the future. The problem is that this – along with the County’s continuation of its historical housing policies and practices – creates a self-perpetuating cycle. The County continues to concentrate on affordable housing in the same few areas and then special efforts by APS and community resources must be diverted accordingly. Families must live in certain neighborhoods and send their children to specific schools because that is where the housing and services they need are most accessible and where there is help to connect them to the programs and opportunities they rely upon. The more this cycle is reinforced, the more difficult and unlikely it is that steps will ever be taken to break it.

This also creates extra considerations and costs when school redistricting is necessary. Families do not want to lose the supports at their current school by being reassigned to one that does not offer them. Boundary changes can result in significant differences in a school’s demographics that change the school’s instructional needs in ways it is not prepared to meet, unnecessarily limiting redistricting and administrative options in efficiently managing the overall system.

Over the years, there has been much discussion about increasing diversity in our schools, ultimately ending with the assertion that nothing can be done until the County changes its housing policies. Even if the policies change, the impacts will be long in coming. High proportions of Arlington’s most disadvantaged children will remain on the west end of the Pike concentrated in the three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school those neighborhoods are districted to. In the meantime, APS and Arlington County should:

  • collaborate on a “community in schools” type approach administered by the County and facilitated by APS at every school;
  • heed the conclusions of decades of social science research that economically diverse learning environments are beneficial to all students and are more effective in decreasing achievement gaps than providing additional funds and resources to high-poverty schools;
  • give equal consideration to student demographics in a formula with other factors (such as proximity, efficiency, and alignment) and strive for a balance of those factors in every school boundary decision;
  • update the Columbia Pike Neighborhoods Plan and corresponding Form-Based Code to discourage or preclude the addition of more committed affordable units (CAFs) west of Glebe where the three elementary schools with the highest % of students eligible for free and reduced meals are (ranging from approximately 60% to 80%);
  • provide greater incentives for commercial development and higher-income housing throughout the Columbia Pike corridor, especially on the western end;
  • apply the Columbia Pike zoning, density, and committed affordable housing requirements to Lee Highway redevelopment plans;
  • and provide incentives that encourage new CAFs in areas that lack economic diversity but have the community resources to support the needs of low-income neighbors and schools that increase opportunities and achievement levels of disadvantaged students.

APS, County leaders, and community members give a lot of lip service to “equity” for all students and all residents. The most expedient and effective way to true equity is through integrated communities. That’s going to take a lot of social engineering – or rather, re-engineering.

Maura McMahon is the mother of two children in Arlington Public Schools. An Arlington resident since 2001, McMahon has been active in a range of County and school issues.  She has served on the Thomas Jefferson, South Arlington, and Career Center working groups and currently serves as president of the Arlington County Council of PTAs.

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