Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

What do universities owe abutting communities? | Penn to invest in Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia

Not unlike how so many state capitals don't foster urban revitalization and a thriving local community, when you would think otherwise, plenty of urban universities are cloisters with limited positive impact on the areas outside their campuses--Yale and New Haven, Providence and Brown, Columbia University and Manhattan are prime examples.

The New York Times recently published an article, "Have Urban Universities Done Enough for the Neighborhoods Around Them?," about this wrt Columbia University, recent tragedies of students killed just off campus, and the general unwillingness of the university to invest in community safety and revitalization around the campus.  

Separately, Columbia has agreed to many millions in community benefits in association with expansion, but for years has provided only $5,000 per year to the Friends of Morningside Heights Park, the place where Tessa Majors was murdered ("NYC teen who murdered Barnard student Tessa Majors gets 14-years-to-life in prison," New York Daily News).

Universities and colleges (unless overtly for profit) are exempt from local property taxes, making their presence not always economically positive, even though generally universities have positive local economic impact, although that's usually at a scale greater than the immediate neighborhoods around a comppus ("The economic impact of universities: Evidence from across the globe," Economics  of Education Review).

Some cities try to get universities to contribute money to local government, called PILOTs -- payment in lieu of taxes -- and a mayor in Providence, Rhode Island even suggests an annual per capita payment per student ("Mayor Proposes a College Attendance Head Tax In Rhode Island," Tax Foundation).

Former president of Penn, Judith Rodin, wrote a book, The University and Urban Revival: Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets, about her experience reorienting Penn to West Philadelphia.

One school that has invested a lot in community and revitalization is the University of Pennsylvania (and of course there are others, see "Better leveraging higher education institutions in cities and counties: Greensboro; Spokane; Mesa; Phoenix; Montgomery County, Maryland; Washington, DC," "The other George Miller idea: creating multi-college innovation centers in (cities) Philadelphia | Creating public library-college education centers as revitalization initiatives," "University President Freeman Hrabowski and an agenda for urban universities," "President of Washington State University dies: fostered development of the "University District" adjacent to Downtown Spokane," and "Universities as elements of urban/downtown revitalization: the Portland State story and more"). 

A bunch of colleges also have mortgage programs to subsidize loans to faculty and staff for living in neighborhoods near campus ("DC giving money to universities to give to their employees to live in the city," 2011).  Mercer University in Macon, Georgia initiated a neighborhood revitalization program for lagging neighborhoods around its campus in the late 1990s ("Beall’s Hill Neighborhood Revitalization Project," MU, Neighborhood Revitalization Guide, Historic Macon Foundation, "Historic Macon Foundation will expand revitalization efforts in Macon’s Beall’s Hill neighborhood with $3 million from Knight Foundation," Knight Foundation).

After considering relocating to Philadelphia's suburbs in the 1960s, Penn instead re-committed to Philadelphia, and began investing in West Philadelphia off campus.

A key initiative is the creation of a business improvement district, the University City District, which also includes Drexel University, Amtrak, and other institutions.  

Memorial Gate at Penn.

While it was pointed out to me that these organizations created the initiative as a way to ward off PILOTs and other property tax attempts, the group does a lot to improve the area, has workforce development initiatives, clean and safe services, etc.

Another was the creation of a new elementary school, Penn Alexander, partly as a lab for university initiatives, but primarily as a way to make the neighborhood more attractive to faculty and staff affiliated with the school, as well as higher income segments of the market not necessarily affiliated with the school, but who would be attracted by its proximity to Center City Philadelphia.

Penn is now extending their support of local elementary education to an additional school, Henry Lea ("Penn to invest nearly $5M over 5 years in another West Philly school," Philadelphia Inquirer). Lea is close to Penn Alexander, but significantly under-enrolled.  From the article:

It would be the second such transformational, recurring commitment Penn would make to a Philadelphia School District school. The university already partners with Penn Alexander, providing it with $1,300 a student - money used to pay for extra staff and other supports. ... 

The reason? Penn, the district, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers “wish to emulate the success of the Penn Alexander School and desire to collaborate to support the Henry C. Lea School,” according to the board resolution. The money “will further support the provision of the highest-quality educational opportunities for children in West Philadelphia and Penn’s desire to collaboratively support Lea.” ...

Penn Alexander was not a preexisting district school, but arose from a 1990s Penn idea: Build a strong public school as a way to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding the university, in part to make it an attractive place for Penn faculty to live. The university helped design Penn Alexander, which opened in 2001 with extra staff and opportunities not available in most other district schools. 

Despite being just a few blocks away from each another, Penn Alexander and Lea have significantly different student makeups. Most Penn Alexander students live inside the catchment area; 45% are white, 26% Asian, 14% Black, and 4% Hispanic. Just 46% are economically disadvantaged, far less than district average, and 7% receive special education services. The school scores a 90 out of 100 on the district’s School Performance Report, placing it among the top performers in the city; it won the coveted National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence distinction from the U.S. Department of Education in September. 

Penn Alexander often has a waiting list for kindergarten; for years, parents camped outside the school for days to secure a spot for their children. (The students who did not win a seat at Penn Alexander were most often sent to Lea, which typically is not full.) ... 

Lea is more representative of the school system as a whole: 43% of its students live in the catchment area; 65% are Black, 13% white, 12% Asian, and 5% Hispanic. Three-quarters of its students come from economically disadvantaged families and 15% receive special education services. It scored a 53 out of 100 on the district’s internal metric, landing it in the second-highest performing group of schools.

It will be interesting to see the impact on Lea compared to Penn Alexander, and if more resources and attention is enough to improve student outcomes in significant ways for students of color.

A more systematic approach to center city public school improvement.  Like other center cities, Philadelphia's schools lag ("‘Stubborn inequity’: 6 in 10 Philly kids still attend low-performing schools, report says," Philadelphia Inquirer).

Recently I wrote a couple pieces in response to an op-ed by Temple University professor George Miller, about expanding higher education opportunities for Philadelphia residents ("HBCUs and the city: Relocating Cheyney University to Philadelphia?" and "The other George Miller idea: creating multi-college innovation centers in (cities) Philadelphia | Creating public library-college education centers as revitalization initiatives").

(Also see "A MILLION MILES AWAY: Temple, Philadelphia’s ‘diversity university,’ has seen a plummeting share of Black students over the last 25 years, even as it rapidly expanded enrollment," Philadelphia Inquirer, "Capital One announces partnership with Delaware State University," Capital One Foundation.)

At the same there should be a similar visionary approach applied to the city's public school system, involving as many of Philadelphia's universities as possible.  

While there have been many failures in urban school reform, there are positive examples ("Surprising gains in 5 school districts you’ve never heard of, plus Chicago," Washington Post), usually involving the use of AP and International Baccalaureate programs for high schools, and magnet and other programs for elementary and middle schools.  

Additional resources for Title I Schools, Co-operative High School (one of my ideas), Summer School, Year Round School, Pre-K 3-5, etc., should also be included in achieving transformational programmatic improvement in large public school districts ("Successful school programs in low income communities").  From the Washington Post article "America’s most accelerated math program blasts through pandemic":

The Pasadena public schools, where most students are from low-income families, have had a mediocre reputation for decades. But in recent years its administrators have created strong AP and International Baccalaureate programs with high levels of participation. It has established magnet schools and dual-language immersion classes.

The "Schools as Community Center" approach should also be used, whereby schools are expanded through the co-location of other civic assets such as libraries ("Update: Neighborhood libraries as nodes in a neighborhood and city-wide network of cultural assets"), public health clinics, etc.  (In DC, Briya Charter Schools have a co-location agreement with Mary's Center clinics, a couple elementary schools in Salt Lake City have public health clinics.)

-- Cincinnati Public Schools Community Learning Centers approach

There are many other examples, including Arlington County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland's approach to Title I schools, etc.

Fixing buildings initiative.  Separately, Penn has agreed to a $100 million investment in the school system, over ten years ("Penn’s $100 million pledge has a backstory," WHYY/NPR), but I don't think that is enough.  

It's for buildings, not unlike MAPS4Kids in Oklahoma City, and while schools and neighborhoods around them were improved, a failure to invest in programs apart from buildings meant that the buildings improved but outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds remained unchanged ("Maps for Kids wraps up," Daily Oklahoman).

By contrast, Oklahoma City spent almost $500 million on the core school district.

Leighton Harris, 4, in pink, and her classmates learned about shapes in the prekindergarten class at the James Rushton Early Learning Center in Birmingham, Ala. The Alabama program is free and meets more quality benchmarks than Massachusetts' pre-K system, according to national experts. Photo: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

Pre-K initiative in Alabama as a model.  A city-wide pre-K program could be a great initiative.  The Boston Globe has an article, "Families in Alabama have free, full-day prekindergarten while many Mass. families can only dream of it," about a statewide initiative that appears to have significant positive outcomes. From the article:
Massachusetts prides itself on having its schools top some national rankings on test scores, but that glow can obscure the gaps. Large swaths of low-income students and students of color are left behind from a young age due to the state’s uneven access to early education, which enriches children when their developing brains are spongiest, say experts, making it a critical tool in closing achievement gaps. 
Studies have found that children who attend high-quality pre-K grow up to have better high school graduation and college attendance rates, less criminal activity, and higher salaries. 

Alabama’s program is still young, but research already shows promising results: Students who attended the state’s pre-K were less likely than their peers to later be chronically absent, need special education services, or be held back a grade — and as middle-schoolers, they were more likely to read and perform math at grade level. ...

In Alabama, the state increased its funding for pre-K by 26 percent last year, and by 16 to 20 percent in previous years. Enrollment has grown from 1 percent of Alabama’s 4-year-olds in 2002 to 44 percent this year, officials said, and is on track to reach at least 70 percent by 2026.

And DC.  A similar initiative has also worked well for DC, with positive impacts on children, mother employment and income, and in retaining as residents families with residential choice (The Effects of Universal Preschool in Washington, D.C., Center for American Progress, "What Can D.C.’s Universal Pre-K Program Teach Us?," The Century Foundation).

Britain Sure Start.  Under Labour Government, the Sure Start program was created to provide extra support to low income families ("Sure Start worked. So why is Theresa May out to kill it?," Guardian). But the program has mostly been eliminated by succeeding Conservative governments. From the article:

The reality is that Sure Start was a groundbreaking success. A commitment to supporting families in the early years of their children’s development shouldn’t have been revolutionary, but it was. When the Labour government announced Sure Start in 1998, the programme was targeted at the poorest 20% of wards in England. From there it grew into a network of 4,000 children’s centres across the country, each dedicated to improving the life chances of young children and the wellbeing of families.

Children’s centres offered employment support, health advice, childcare, parenting help – unified service delivery designed to prevent isolation and, ultimately, to reduce the gaps between rich and poor children which, as a growing body of evidence shows, often go on to define lives. ...

A study by Oxford University revealed by the DfE just before Christmas was the most detailed ever conducted on the impact of children’s centres – and it found the centres benefited parents and families who regularly attended classes in poorer areas, contributing to less disruptive home lives, better maternal mental health, and improved social skills among children and adults.

From a university standpoint, it's opportunity to involve programs in health, medicine, public health, etc. 

Community broadband network with schools as key nodesAn op-ed in the Inquirer, "The Black community needs better internet access now," makes the point that limited access to high speed Internet is an access and economic development issue in poor communities ("The Digital Divide Is a Human Rights Issue: Advancing Social Inclusion Through Social Work Advocacy," Journal of Human Rights and Social Work).

The article isn't particularly visionary, pointing out that the Biden infrastructure bill provides a $30/month discount on broadband for low income families, and that there should be hard core advocacy and outreach to get people to sign up.

By contrast, the Murray School District in Utah created a high speed community broadband wireless network, through an antenna-based system, where high speed cables deliver broadband to schools, and through antennas on the roofs of schools, a wifi network has been created, so that students can access it from home and other places ("This Utah school district has built its own internet service so students can log on from home," Salt Lake Tribune).  From the article:

In the school district that covers this small suburb of Salt Lake County — a nearly perfect 3-mile by 3-mile square that includes some of the poorest neighborhoods in the state — every student will soon be connected to high-speed internet at home. 

It will be delivered through a network dreamed up and built entirely by Murray School District, an extraordinary undertaking that no other district in the nation has ever pulled off. And the service will be free for the kids there at a crucial time, when the pandemic has made access to broadband as essential to education as books. 

“We’re pioneering it,” said Jason Eyre, the technology supervisor for Murray schools, who has been called “the godfather of Utah’s new educational broadband plan” after working on the project for more than two years. ... 

There are 44 towers total, including six at the district’s one high school. The structures look like metal trees with an antenna on top and are placed largely on roofs to create the LTE network. The acronym for “Long-term Evolution” refers to an upgrade of wireless data networks that dates back about 10 years, and included switching to new radio spectrum. 

Before now, the radios at Murray schools have mostly provided Wi-Fi inside the buildings. But Murray has used federal funding for COVID-19 to purchase and engineer higher quality towers that can send an internet signal much farther — between 900 feet and a mile, to the houses and apartments of all of its 6,000 students. 

The district will now be distributing hotspots and other receivers to its kids to place in a window of their home. That will pick up the signal from the towers, and when a student opens a Chromebook from the district, it will automatically connect online.

By using other civic sites: parks; libraries; recreation centers; and other government buildings; a network with greater depth and breadth can be created.  And of course, universities, as their IT departments typically have a lot of experiencing in dealing with high speed Internet connections, heavy use of the system, providing wifi over long distances, etc.

Granted Comcast is based in Philadelphia, and provides local cable, but creating this kind of community broadband network could be a great repositioning move for the local school system and the city at large, just as the Gig network is doing for Chattanooga ("Chattanooga as a "smart city": next steps").

The trick is to make it available to community members as well.  But how to do that without degrading the quality?  OTOH, the school system could take extra steps for student access--providing computers etc. as well as hotspots and receivers.

In any case "Maps4Kids"-like building rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts should include the construction of a community-wide wifi network.

Conclusion.  Maybe all of this is already being done, but I doubt it.  The next step for addressing "what Philadelphia universities owe Philadelphia" should be a focus on getting involved in significantly improving the public school system.

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At 11:37 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"The Black community needs better
internet access now"

FWIW, the article isn't laying out a particularly visionary path, merely mentioning how in the Biden infrastructure initiatives, people can get a discount on broadband service and suggesting outreach and advocacy around that program.

By contrast, there are community broadband networks of various sorts, that provide high speed wireless access through key distribution points, such as antennas on schools.

(It's more like giving people fish versus teaching them how to fish.)

The Murray School District in Utah does this.

West Valley City has wifi access at parks. That's not super noteworthy, many communities do that. Then again, most communities don't.

But they could have had much bigger impact had they leveraged this effort to do something more like Murray.

The idea would be to use civic sites: schools, parks, libraries, other government buildings, as antenna points.


The Digital Divide Is a Human Rights Issue: Advancing Social Inclusion Through Social Work Advocacy
Cynthia K Sanders, Edward Scanlon

Journal of Human Rights and Social Work

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I remember back in 1993-94 Apple (which was very big into education computing at the time) proposed a community based wireless network out of school with a range of 1-2 miles.

So the Murray School district proposal isn't at all new.

Probably using something like this:

It a CBRS (Citizen Broadband radio).

Just eyeballing the spectrum and band and probably would not work that great in an urban area.

works great where you don't have other buildings.

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I do remember vaguely that Apple stuff. In denser areas you need more antennas.

I meant to mention that when DC was enthralled with a "public private partnership" to fund redoing the streetlights, they proposed including the equipment within to create a true community wifi network.

After the 2018 election, that was one of the people fired (the planning director was another).

At 2:02 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 2:55 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Meek Mill, Kevin Hart, and Michael Rubin miss the point with $15 million scholarship donations"

While this donation is being framed as a gift “to Philadelphia schools,” it is anything but.

These dollars are instead funneled into the coffers of private and parochial schools, while at the same time undermining public schools by simultaneously siphoning off students and sending the message that the only path to a decent education is to abandon your classmates and community. ...

Moves like this only continue to undermine public schools and contribute to the plethora of foundations and nonprofits around Philadelphia that purport to “help schools” while merely creating a layer of money that moves around and never makes its way directly to students.

At 3:19 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Just came across this Penn dissertation:

"Anchoring Communities: The Impact of University Interventions on Neighborhood Revitalization"

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"A broken education system requires more than one-off investments from billion-dollar institutions"

"The Penn Alexander effect: Is there any room left for low-income residents in University City?"

At 9:49 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

"Anaheim Elementary district put $16 million in state funding toward expanding learning"

Clubs, music teaching, other programs.

At 12:13 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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