How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

How to kill 2 birds with 1 stone

It might be possible to kill two birds with one stone - reduce the achievement gap for poorer students and address the affordable housing obligations of suburban New Jersey communities without driving up local school taxes.

A study of the Greenwich, Connecticut, school district found that "more than three-quarters" of the low-income students in this very wealthy district scored at or above proficiency on the most recent statewide 10th grade performance tests."

At nearby Stamford School, where nearly 47 percent of the students receive free or reduced priced lunches, "almost half the students failed to meet proficiency levels." The extremely positive result for the low-income students in Greenwich was achieved without diminishing the educational attainment of their rich classmates.

This is not the only study that suggests that poor kids perform better in more affluent schools than ones with higher concentrations of poverty. Confirming what legendary sociologist, James Coleman, found more than 40 years ago, that after the socioeconomic status of a child's family, the biggest predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomics of the school he or she attends.

A study by the RAND Corporation of the public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland, "a suburb of Washington, [that] has one of the most affluent populations in America and an innovative housing authority that allows low-income citizens to rent homes alongside wealthier neighbors at steeply discounted prices... concluded that students from poor families did much better in predominantly wealthy schools than in predominantly poor ones. On average, the poorer children [who live] in wealthier schools cut their achievement gap in half compared with their peers in poorer schools."

According to Jason Sachs, who heads early childhood education in the Boston Public School system, peers matter - "Vocabulary and background knowledge play a major role in student learning." Others argue that high-wealth districts have better teachers, more educational support services and are much safer and more physically appealing and do not lurch from one crisis to another.

The exemplary education performance of low-income students in affluent districts is why I'm opposed to allowing suburban New Jersey communities to address their "fair share" Council on Affordable Housing obligation by employing "regional contribution agreement." This strategy enables suburban communities to provide $20,000 to urban communities to building low- and moderate-income units. In Mercer County it has been employed by outer-ring communities, on various occasions, to reduce their low- and moderate-income Mount Laurel housing obligations and build various types of low-income housing in Trenton.

Based on the experiences in Greenwich and Montgomery County, placing students from diverse income levels in Mercer County's wealthier suburban communities might be an effective way to help close the achievement gap among low-income students. Richard Kalenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of the Montgomery County study indicates that "95 percent of education reform is about trying to make high-poverty schools work...This research suggest there is a much more effective way to help close the achievement gap. And that is to give low-income students a chance to attend middle-class schools."

Stefanie DeLuca, associate professor of sociology at John Hopkins University, in a review of the report, indicated that "the conventional wisdom ... is that we really need to infuse the poorest schools with lots of resources. This study turns that wisdom on its head to some extent. It says actually, it's who you are going to school with."

While the studies of economic integration in Greenwich and Montgomery County suggest that it may be able to counteracting the ill effects of housing patterns that concentrate poverty in certain areas, I realize that getting suburban communities to add low-income students to their school mix is a heavy lift.

However, many of New Jersey's wealthiest communities have a Damocles sword hanging over their heads - their Mount Laurel affordable housing obligation. In my hometown, West Windsor Township, the worse case scenario could involving building 1,000+ affordable units over the next eight years. Using the conventional ratio of 4 to 1 for market rate units to subsidize the building of affordable units, this could mean that West Windsor could be required to accommodate 5,000+ housing units prior to 2025.

Simply put, without substantial additional resources, the lighthouse West Windsor-Plainsboro School District would not be able to continue to provide a high-quality education to its student if it faced a population increase of that magnitude without imposing enormous untenable tax increases. I have an idea that could help suburban districts deal with the increase in cost resulting from a rapid increase in their school population brought about by Mt. Laurel.

The Department of Education, could provide per student financial incentives to suburban districts linked to the number of low-income students that entered the district as a result of a Mount Laurel settlement. The funds would provide an incentive for suburban districts to welcome low-income students to their district.

Initially, the idea could be tried on a pilot basis, with a sample of high-quality suburban districts. If this economic integration approach was successful and both low-income and high-performing students continued to do well, it could be expanded to other high-quality suburban districts with high Mt. Laurel housing obligations.