Teachers and Students As Neighbors: A Solution For Urban Schools?
Teachers living in the same neighborhood as their students and their families so they can run into each other while doing errands; teachers and parents meeting in spaces designed expressly for them to collaborate: this might sound like a scenario from Pleasantville, USA. It’s actually what Teachers Village, an urban housing development now under construction in a blighted business district in Newark, New Jersey, is envisioned to foster.
The goal of the $150 million project is to “create a community of teachers” whose presence will “bring energy — and disposable income — to the now run-down area.” Rents are set for middle-class occupants: a studio apartment will be $700 a month and a two-bedroom apartment $1,400.
Construction started in February 2012; the project is to be completed in 2015. Three new charter schools have already been built and are in operation; 213 inexpensive residential apartments and 28 shops, many of which will be for Newark-based businesses, are being built.
Similar urban housing developments are underway in Baltimore and Philadelphia, EdWeek points out. Newark’s is somewhat more high-profile. The six buildings are being designed by renowned architect Richard Meier, whose credits include the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Barcelona Museum of Art.
Mayor and U.S. Senator-elect Cory Booker contends that Teachers Village will “attract investment, create hundreds of new jobs, and provide an innovative model for school construction and improvement.” He and other Newark officials and developers indeed have high hopes for Teachers Village. Developer Ron Beit says that
“…we are not just building buildings. We are building a tool that will serve this city and state in the recruitment and retention of the best teachers in the region. And we are setting an example in school construction for the benefit of the children in the community. In doing so we are creating a model that cities across the country will want to emulate.”
Teachers Village has attracted controversy, with some Newark residents questioning for whose benefit the new development is and saying that the funds would have been better spent on the public system and its existing schools. Nearly $100 million in public dollars (in tax credits and school construction bonds) was used for the project with funds also contributed by investors like Goldman Sachs and Prudential Financial (which has offices in downtown Newark).
As Newark resident Sharif Amerhotep comments, “I don’t understand why we’re letting these corporate schools in while cutting funding for the district teachers and closing public schools.” Another resident, Cassandra Dock, also sees Teachers Village as a project that outsiders are imposing on Newark. Indeed, at a September 25 ribbon-cutting event to celebrate Teachers Village, police held back protesters who sought to drown out Beit’s and Booker’s speeches.
Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, has been associated with urban decline and crime since the 1967 race riots. The city’s schools have had so many problems — poor student performance, corruption and questionable use of funds — that they have been under the control of the state for many years. Many Newark school teachers (like a cousin of my husband, a now-retired shop teacher) live in other parts of the state and are one step removed from the realities of their students’ lives.
The idea of having teachers living in the same neighborhoods as Newark students is appealing. Teachers Village probably won’t be quite the panacea that a developer like Beit glowingly describes it as, but the idea of teachers being part of the same urban community as their students, rather than driving in from the suburbs, holds promise. As has been said, it takes a village to raise a child: should not educators be part of such a community, too?
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