Good schools should be part of Seattle's density agenda

Density advocates need to understand that strong urban schools, woven into neighborhoods, can help revitalize urban Seattle. The case for EOD (educationally oriented development).

Crosscut archive image.

Cleveland High School

Density advocates need to understand that strong urban schools, woven into neighborhoods, can help revitalize urban Seattle. The case for EOD (educationally oriented development).

For those of us who love cities, failing urban schools are an accelerant for sprawl as parents avoid those schools in favor of suburban ones. There is an anti-clerical painting by 19th century Spanish painter Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala called “Taming of the Donkey” that epitomizes the struggle faced in our schools. It shows a friar in a rural scene struggling mightily with a stubborn mule — an image especially relevant for those trying to tame the stubborn bureaucracy of our public education system.

People very often choose where to live based on schools, a fact of life that is hardly ever mentioned by urbanists. They often talk about Transit Oriented Development or TOD. But what about "Educationally Oriented Development"  or EOD (a term coined by Crosscut writer Chuck Wolfe)? What if we planned our cities to address one of the abiding concerns of young families across economic levels — the quality and safety of public schools?

We worry about housing and transportation, but families will pay more for housing and drive miles out of their way for good schools. Why aren’t we addressing that?

Mary Jean Ryan, executive director of the Community Center for Educational Results, attended the recent Crosscut writers' lunch. Her talk and answers to questions reveal that the educational system is (surprise!) overly complex and unresponsive to attempts to nudge it into action.

Two graphs in her presentation packet stood out for me. The first was a flow chart mapping the spaghetti-like mess of influencers in our educational system. The second was a dramatic graph showing the difference between the graduation rate of Seattle's Cleveland High School and that of Bellevue High School. From year to year, the graph shows a dramatic fall-off in attendance at Cleveland High as students dropped out. In Bellevue High School on the other hand, nearly all students graduated and went to college.

When confronted with this data and the tangled mess that is the educational system, a parent has a choice: Move to Seattle and, like the priest in the painting, try mightily to make Seattle schools better; or move somewhere farther from the dense urban grid; or opt out and send the kids to private schools.

Once that decision is made, the political die is cast. The parent who chooses to live in Maple Valley is now a constituent for highway maintenance and construction. Tolls for transit? Sure — for those city people, but not for us. After all, we’ve got to get our kids to school and soccer and everything else.

Enter Educationally Oriented Development. EOD could put schools right inside new, dense, urban development — on the second floor or even higher up. Entire new developments could focus around a new school that spans from kindergarten to 12th grade. Maybe this new development includes a light rail station and a transit center.

"Mixed use is not just about co-location," says Marty Blank, director for school, family, and community connections at the Institute for Educational Leadership. “It is about shared vision, a focus on common results, and the integration of strategies and services to support student learning, families, and communities. We must never forget the core teaching and learning mission of schools as we build these kinds of places." Blank's words were included in a "New Schools, Better Neighborhoods" article several years ago that well articulates the point of EOD. 

Ryan and her many collaborators are struggling to somehow turn a mishmash of educational programs — some successful and some not — into a coherent system of education from cradle to college. To do that, she says, communities have to demand excellence. “We’ve tolerated mediocre and very poor schools,” she points out. “Communities have to demand better.”

But, to bring back the donkey in that painting, I’d point out that educational fads come and go. Educators from special education assistants to classroom teachers to superintendents want to make their schools happy places full of learning kids. The school system’s resistance to reform is often based on legitimate concerns that today’s fad will become tomorrow’s bloated system of rules and reporting, a soul-crushing disincentive to innovation. Just let us do our job and give us the funding to be successful, they say.

Perhaps they're right and we are trying to do too much. Why does every kid have to read at the same level? Why does every student have to meet the same standard in math on a standardized test? We’re wasting resources trying to move every single kid across a quantitative finish line, just to say we did. If the outcome we want is a happy, employed, and curious citizenry, education is a part of that. However we define success, I doubt it correlates strongly with knowledge of trigonometry.

Educationally Oriented Development could reintegrate schools with everything else in life, making them school houses again, close to home, accessible, and safe.

There’s another painting of Zamacois y Zabala’s called “Education of the Prince” that should serve as our model. In the painting anxious courtiers wait and watch while a young prince crawls toward a set of carefully laid out toys. Will he choose the soldier or the ball or the sailboat? They know the future is at stake. Likewise, Washington should be investigating the strengths of its future citizens and educating to those strengths rather than toward a bar graph of test scores. The best place to do that is in a community that is not just dense and diverse, but also family and educationally oriented.


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