By Dr. Henry Louis Taylor Jr.
The King Center Charter School’s (KCCS) quest to move from its current location to former Public School 71 is as much about neighborhood development as it is about school relocation.
In this context, the decision to relocate is a clash between two warring visions over the role of publically financed schools in the development of East Side neighborhoods. This decision is also an act of disinvestment that betrays the King Urban Life Center’s (KULC) dream to save the church and neighborhood in which it is located.
Schools are neighborhood anchor institutions that cultivate community identity and increase return on public investments. This was the vision of the city, state and all who invested millions to save St. Mary of Sorrows from demolition. When the city and the community intervened in 1986, they realized that rescuing the church alone would not change the trajectory of the neighborhood’s development.
KULC, in response, built a neighborhood change model based on education reform and transforming the community’s physical environment. However, for that model to succeed, KULC also had to develop a resource base sufficient to maintain the facilities and leverage physical improvements in the neighborhood.
Within this context, KULC, as part of its neighborhood change strategy, created the King Center Charter School as a holistic model for education reform for East Side children. With the charter school as its anchor, KULC then launched the Parent Child Home Program, adult computer education, after-school tutoring, and an Artist-In-Residence program.
It transformed the entire block between Rich and Guilford, purchased properties, built and maintained a playground and assisted with the demolition of derelict properties, thereby laying the foundation for prospective housing development. KULC became an East Side Beacon of Hope and a model of how “place-based” institutions can change communities.
The King Center Charter School has a different vision of its role in the community. It does not view the school as “rooted” in the neighborhood, so it wants to break its partnership with KULC and move to a “better location.” But a publicly financed charter school is not a privately owned, “footloose” institution, which is free to move whenever and wherever it chooses.
The government has poured millions into KCCS, and the school has a responsibility to all taxpayers, especially those living in the community where it is located. For this reason, KCCS should be held to a higher standard because it is an anchor institution, which is in reality, “rooted” in the neighborhood, regardless of what the board thinks.
KCCS staying at its current location is good for both the neighborhood and the children. One reason is that neighborhoods matter in the education of our children. Jeffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said, “You cannot reform the schools without changing the neighborhoods, and you cannot change the neighborhoods without reforming the schools. You can try, but you will fail.”
It does not matter if the children live in one East Side neighborhood and go to school in another. The reason is the conditions in most East Side neighborhoods are essentially the same. So, disinvesting in one East Side neighborhood and reinvesting in another East Side neighborhood serves no useful purpose.
The reality is that we must transform the entire East Side to save the children; because if simply having a fancy school building was the key to academic success, most Buffalo schools would be doing great. However, facilities are only one part of the story, the neighborhoods are the other. Therefore, schools should “cast down their buckets” wherever they are located, and work to improve the quality of neighborhood life, regardless of where their students live.
KCCS has a very different idea about schools and the neighborhoods in which they are located. They want complete control over the school building and its site, which they view as a self-contained campus, with no connections to the surrounding neighborhood. KCCS is in the neighborhood, but not of the neighborhood. Because it has no loyalty or attachment to the community, KCCS thinks that it is okay to relocate, but it is not. The decision to move is a bad one in both neighborhood development and educational terms.
The purpose of education is to prepare students to earn a living and become engaged citizens who will confront the challenge of regenerating their troubled neighborhood, not run away from it. Regardless of what the board says, the children at KCCS know the school is running away from the neighborhood, and the children living in the neighborhood know the school is “running away.” They have seen this movie before.
The East Side landscape is littered with abandoned buildings that were vacated by institutions exercising their right to run away. So, the actions of the KCCS will teach the children that it is okay to “escape” from their neighborhoods, rather than stay, and work to change them. This King Charter civics lesson will undermine the children’s self-esteem, destroy their sense of neighborhood loyalty, and distort the meaning of engaged citizenship.
The King Charter might have the right to move, but it is not okay. It should be held to a higher standard. In this epoch of scarcity, anchor institutions, including universities, hospitals and schools, have a dual role to play in urban society, especially those situated in troubled communities. They must carry out their prime duties and responsibilities and they must work to transform the community in which they are located.
The Buffalo Common Council will have the final say on whether KCCS stays or goes. We can only hope our elected officials will hold the charter school to the higher anchor institution standard by having it expand and grow in place. In this challenging era, the role of anchor institutions as participants in the neighborhood development process is central to our continued progress.
Dr. Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is director of the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies, a member of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, and a member of the King Urban Life Center board of directors.