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Neighborhoods - A New Linkages Lexicon, A New Set of Neighborhood Models, Neighborhoods and the Development of Children

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The neighborhood has long been an icon of school quality, local responsiveness, and home/parent centeredness in U.S. education. The mythology of the neighborhood has been heavily reinforced by the deep popularity of the long-running children's television show Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. A romantic image of the neighborhood has also often been at the heart of opposition to busing, school closings, redefined attendance areas, or reallocations of personnel. Nostalgia connects the neighborhood school to the old-time schoolhouse–a facility remembered as being at the very center of the community, with its potluck suppers, spelling bees, family softball games, and Fourth of July picnics.

Reality, of course, has been a different story. Desegregation policies, population growth, magnet schooling, diversity goals, pairings of schools, and an increasing array of other choice options have reduced significantly the percentage of schools that have an identifiable neighborhood flavor. Nevertheless, at the start of the twenty-first century the significance of the neighborhood is returning to discussions of and inquiry into matters of school improvement.

Among the forces spurring this rediscovery of the neighborhood are: (1) a new appreciation of out-of-school (alongside in-school) learning and development; (2) a return in many communities to neighborhood assignment patterns under renegotiated desegregation agreements; (3) a renewed interest in cultural elements, and matters of cultural diversity, in varied patterns of development among children; and (4) a realization that school-centered learning (typically academic) and neighborhood-based learning (heavily social and emotional) can be, but are not necessarily, effectively linked.

A New Linkages Lexicon

The renewed fascination with the neighborhood has been accompanied by a re-explored lexicon of linkages terminology and neighborhoods-centered theorizing. The most commonly employed term is social capital, which captures the notion that the strengths of families and their surrounding neighborhoods can provide a social foundation of norms, networks, and relationships upon which the schools can build. In pushing the concept of social capital, James Coleman has suggested that, in neighborhoods lacking or weak in social capital, it should be the job of the local school to reach out to families with sets of capital-creating activities.

Other terms gaining an increased frequency of use are: social cohesion, agency, and a sense-of-place. Social cohesion proceeds beyond matters of capital toward an interest in the connective tissues of neighborhoods, as well as between neighborhoods and schools. Connective "webs," collaborative endeavors, and ecological systems are key elements–as are such administrative acts as networking and a building of civic capacity.

Social cohesiveness exists when members of a school community adhere to the understood cultural norms of that community, and when members display tolerance in interactions across social groups. Stephen Heyneman suggests schools perform five essential functions in fostering social cohesion: (1) teach the "rules of the game" (i.e., principles underpinning good citizenship and consequences for not adhering to these principles) through curriculum content; (2) support school and classroom cultures;(3) decrease the distance between individuals of different origins, thus building social capital; (4) provide an equality of opportunity for all students, thus creating the public perception that the available opportunities for education are distributed fairly; and (5) adjudicate disagreements across social groups.

The concept of agency reflects a closer attention to the centeredness of a school within its neighborhood, reflecting a deep cultural embeddedness between school and community, as well as the agency work of the school in both preserving and passing on the values of the community. In like manner, the idea of a sense-of-place includes notions of social and cultural embeddedness, but adds a territorial, or boundary, dimension to the discussion–just what is a central part of each neighborhood, and what is not?

A New Set of Neighborhood Models

To the extent that the neighborhood was "modeled" in past years, the central image was that of an entity of importance in the immediate environment around the school, but not of the school. Important were studies of neighborhood and community structures (e.g., community type, socioeconomic status); distributions of power and specialized interests; the array of concerns and issues in the community; and varying sources of support in the surrounding community (e.g., financial, public opinion). The neighborhood, with its structures, issues, and supports, was regarded as an important context around the work of the school, but it was still external and "outside."

More recent modeling (as with the above lexicon) has emphasized a more interactive set of neighborhood theories. Among these are: (a) an activism, or alliances, approach, (b) community-development modeling, (c) regime theorizing, and (d) a family-preferences, or choice, model. Alliance schools have been under experimentation for some time in the state of Texas. The central concept in the alliance approach has been an in-reach from neighborhood-to-school, rather than the other way around. A mobilization of the resources and strengths of the neighborhood and its institutions (including religious organizations) has been employed in the program to reach into the schools and assist the schools to reach back out to the community.

An initiation of alliances, but starting with the school, is also central to community-development modeling. Neighborhood revitalization has become a front-burner endeavor in many communities across the United States. Lizbeth Schorr, among others, would place the neighborhood school at the heart of the development effort. Indeed, Schorr advises that an improvement of learning opportunities in low-income neighborhoods requires nothing less than a key place for the school "at the table where community reform is being organized" (p. 291). In like fashion, William Boyd, Robert Crowson, and Aaron Gresson have suggested an extended role for the local school as an enterprise school, in which it joins an array of other community institutions in the regeneration of the neighborhood environment.

A third model takes the political science term regime as its central idea. From a regime perspective, the essential strengths, and indeed the power, of a neighborhood are to be found in a deeply structural embodiment of the neighborhood's own culture and overall ecology (e.g., its essential lifeways, social institutions, local history, values, norms, expectations, and market forces). While activism and redevelopment are at the heart of the earlier two models, regime theorizing looks more closely at the neighborhood and its various institutions (including the schools) as participants in a sustaining habitat–a notion not unlike the centeredness celebrated in agency theorizing or the collective memories built into a sense-of-place. A key role for persons exercising leadership, from this perspective, may be action as a cultural broker who bridges between the lifeways of a community and the institutions that serve it.

Finally, a neighborhood model that is extremely problematic but must be addressed is the effects model, which is based heavily upon the steadily increasing opportunities for choice found in modernday schooling. An argument in favor of choice of schooling (e.g., through magnets, charters, transfer options, or vouchers) is that families are no longer locked in to underperforming neighborhood schools in poverty-stricken settings. A counterargument is that it is usually the families in a neighborhood with the most social capital and greatest intellectual resources and expectations who will avail themselves of choice–leaving the rest of a neighborhood even less empowered and enabled than before. A caveat is that at least these families stay in the neighborhood physically, if not educationally.

Interestingly, there have been comparative analyses of the effects upon neighborhoods when there are large disparities in the availability of community and social service resources (e.g., playgrounds, libraries). There have not yet been comparable studies of the neighborhood effects of differences in the availability of human capital resources at a family-to-family level.

Neighborhoods and the Development of Children

There are still some neighborhoods to be found that can elicit memories of an old-fashioned bonding, familiarity, stoop-sitting, watching-one-another's-children, stopping-to-chat-awhile community. More common in the early twenty-first century, however, are neighborhoods where the streets are considered danger zones rather than playgrounds, where social interaction is minimal, and where there seems to be little sense of communal responsibility for children. Under these altered and less-cohesive conditions of life, it becomes difficult to conceptualize, and more difficult to study, a set of neighborhood effects upon the development of children and their success in school.

Nevertheless, the recognition is that if a new lexicon of linkages and new models of alliances, regimes, and the like are to bear fruit, then attention must be paid to what have been called "connection impacts." There is evidence, for example, that there are connections of significance to be found in the recent cent and rapid expansion of out-of-school connections, or when-school-is-out programming that provides activities for children outside of regular school hours. After-school options (e.g., tutoring, recreation, art and music education) are on the rise nationally–with public libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and YWCAs, youth groups, faith-based organizations, and some private businesses leading the charge. While there is some disagreement regarding the effectiveness of many after-school programs, interest and experimentation has continued to build.

Halpern has observed that it is a lack of old-fashioned connectiveness in neighborhoods that is reflected in the expansion of after-school activities, including a belief that such public spaces as streets and playgrounds are no longer safe, and that it is "stressful and unproductive for children to be left on their own after school" (p. 81). A growing literature on out-of-school connections has identified as key developmental effects progress in identity-building for youngsters, in emotional support and guidance, in helping to bridge and broker cultural challenges for immigrant youth, in overcoming loneliness, and in providing protection against negative neighborhood influences.

A second major category of connections pays attention to the in-school effects of the neighborhood. A 1999 review by Wynn, Meyer, and Richards-Schuster, for example, has explored the steadily growing case-study literature on the in-school developmental effects of partnerships, service relationships, parental involvement, and community volunteerism. Among the specific benefits can be a sense of the village, meaning a broadened arena of support and caring; improved relationships between home and school; enhanced access to such learning-related services as counseling or medical care; increased school attendance; and improved student perceptions of the community's interest in school. In one of the few empirical studies of neighborhood influences, Lee Shumow, Deborah Vandell, and Jill Posner discovered that a broad exposure to positive adult role models throughout a neighborhood can contribute to better academic performance for children in school.


Public schools have often been in but not of their neighborhoods. The late twentieth century saw a re-discovery of the importance of neighborhood–both as a potentially vital complement to the work of the school and as an important educator in its own right. Linkages between the many components of neighborhoods and between neighborhoods and their schools are receiving new emphasis, including establishing a linkages terminology ranging from concepts of social capital to social cohesion, agency, and sense-of-place. Models of neighborhood involvement are also surfacing anew, including community activism and special alliances, the effects of community revitalization, the idea of regime, and a better understanding of the effects of individual family preferences. Although the notion of neighborhood effects upon the development of children is still an emerging arena for research interest, there are indications that neighborhood connections (both out-of-school and in-school) represent a productive line of inquiry.


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