Gentrification, Educational Redlining, and the Urban Neighborhood School

April 26, 2016

Part 1 of 2

By Kacy Martin

For Neighborhood Schools: Two Probable Outcomes of Gentrification

Gentrification is rapidly spreading in many of America’s large cities and its relationship with long-time residents and their schools is a complicated one. In this two part series, I will explore some of the common and less common effects of the movement of middle-class, largely white residents, into neighborhoods that have traditionally been home to families of color. This week, I will address the more traditional critique of gentrification—that higher-income families move in and force lower-income residents out.

Real estate school ratings in downtown Washington DC by attendance zone. Image courtesy of

Real estate school ratings in downtown Washington DC by attendance zone. Image courtesy of

Next week, I will investigate some of the positive externalities of gentrification—namely, the social and financial capital that new residents bring when they enroll their children in neighborhood schools.

Trendy Neighborhoods, Not so Trendy Schools

In cities like Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington DC, middle-class, white college graduates are swapping the move to the suburbs that their parents made to permanently settle in the city’s center. This younger generation of city-dwellers likes the idea of walkability and easy access to urban amenities like restaurants, retail stores, and their workplaces. This trend often means that they choose neighborhoods that have lower living costs and have been home to mostly residents of color for decades. Along with the arrival of these families come new coffee shops and bike lanes, but also rising rent prices and less accessible housing.

While these residents are buying up large swaths of real estate in inner-city neighborhoods, they are not, for the most part, sending their children to the local neighborhood schools.

The result is that fewer low-income residents can afford to live in neighborhood schools’ zoning areas, and these schools find themselves under-enrolled. In Washington DC, 40 neighborhood schools have been closed since 2008 for largely this reason. The population of one trendy DC neighborhood, Pentworth, is about half black, but two of its neighborhood schools, Barnard Elementary and Powell Elementary, are 2% and 3% white, respectively. These numbers demonstrate that new residents may enjoy consuming the amenities that the neighborhood has to offer, but may not see the need to contribute the community by supporting its longstanding cultural infrastructure.

Educational Redlining

As young, middle- and upper-middle class families consider where to purchase homes in urban areas, many turn to sites like Zillow and Redfin. These sites make searching for property more convenient, offering an extraordinary amount of data about a neighborhood, from the number of young people in an area to the political leanings of potential neighbors. These sites not only give consumers information about property values and crime rates, but also supply a system of rating schools based on desirability.

Real estate websites now contract with sites like Greatschools, which give schools ratings that attempt to indicate their excellence, mediocrity, or failure. These reports use arbitrary achievement data and little expertise to rate schools on a ten-point scale, classifying them as green, yellow, or red. Many middle-class families take their word for it and choose schools outside of the neighborhood, leaving local schools with a dwindling number of students and at risk for closure.

The act of labeling entire communities of schools as red is distressingly similar to the mortgage redlining practices of the recent past, which were declared illegal with the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. To illustrate, the maps below detail the demographic information of the same set of Chicago neighborhoods. The map on the left indicates which schools have been labeled as high, average, or low quality by the real estate industry. The map on the right shows racial demographic data in the city, with blue representing the white population, green representing the black population, orange indicating the Latino population, and red signifying the Asian population.

The correlation between red schools and minority areas is substantial.

Real estate industry’s indicators of educational quality by neighborhood

Real estate industry’s indicators of educational quality by neighborhood

Chicago demographic data

Chicago demographic data








Anecdotal evidence suggests that many home buyers automatically exclude schools with red labels from consideration. The social consequences of this trend are exacerbating the economic and cultural divides that already shape many gentrifying neighborhoods. School segregation between the wealthiest families and others will increase the concentration of resources in schools with high ratings, and lead to further segregation in neighborhoods, and in schools.


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