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A Beautiful Struggle: Reimagining Neighborhood Schools in Urban Communities

by Karen Hunter Quartz, Rebecca Cooper Geller & Shanté Stuart McQueen - 2020

Background/Context: Historians of education have chronicled the essential link between schools and communities from a variety of perspectives, exploring how ideology, material conditions, and political struggles have shaped public education. Viewing school reform historically allows us to see how schools are tied to their particular contexts, breathing in and out the values, beliefs, and conditions of local communities. This link is especially important to acknowledge in the high-poverty urban communities targeted by school reformers in the current policy landscape, which pits privatization against local democratic control of schools. This paper contributes to scholarship on school reform by portraying a local struggle to reimagine a longstanding neighborhood urban school in the context of an expanding marketplace of school choices.

Purpose: Our study uses an asset-based community school development framework to analyze the rich 90-year history of a particular school in the greater Los Angeles area. We were guided by the following research questions: (1) What are the multiple and overlapping demographic, political, educational policy, social, and economic contexts that have shaped or defined the history of the school since its opening? (2) How has this history shaped the community’s relationship to the school now? (3) How does this history inform current efforts to increase public will and community engagement at the school?

Research Design: We conducted this historical case study as participants of a local design team comprised of university and school partners charged with re-envisioning a struggling neighborhood middle school as a K–12 university-assisted community school. Data sources included artifacts, primary and secondary historical sources, and in-depth semistructured interviews with a purposive sample of 14 current and past staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and community members.

Findings/Results: Our findings are visualized in a timeline that captures the school’s reform history, changing demographics, and community context across three periods of school reform. We interpret this history by focusing on three tensions: reform means versus ends, public versus private goods, and critical hope versus despair. By grappling with these democratic tensions, we conclude, urban communities can counter the dominant policy discourse of failing and turnaround schools to reimagine the promise of neighborhood schools as anchor democratic institutions in urban communities.

Conclusions/Recommendations: We recommend that community school reformers consider local histories of neighborhood schools and their communities as important reform assets. Reflecting on these histories can help establish a shared understanding of education as a public good, affirm the linked fate of schools and communities, and set the stage for collective problem-solving.

As school choice initiatives expand, buoyed by the current administration and the charter school movement, there is an opposing reform chorus supporting neighborhood and community schools. The policy landscape pits privatization against local democratic control of schools. School choice advocates argue that a marketplace of school options empowers underserved families to leave failing schools and elevates the overall quality of education (Archbald, 2004; Chubb & More, 1990). Opponents argue that privatizing education leaves the most vulnerable families further behind, weakens communities, and undermines the democratic aims of schooling (Dixson, Buras, & Jeffers, 2015; Lipman & Haines, 2007; Paino, Boylan, & Renzulli, 2017; Pattillo, 2015). There is careful scholarship on both sides of the debate and thoughtful analyses of the reform tensions at play (Green, 2017; Musset, 2012). In this paper, we aim to contribute to this scholarship by portraying a local struggle to reimagine a longstanding neighborhood urban school in the context of an expanding marketplace of school choices.

Our study uses an asset-based community school development framework to analyze the rich 90-year history of a particular school in the greater Los Angeles area. We argue that the local histories of neighborhood schools and their communities are important reform assets insofar as they build a shared understanding of education as a public good and help galvanize collective problem-solving. Using case study methods, we analyze a local history of democratic schooling by focusing on three constitutive tensions: reform means versus ends, public versus private goods, and critical hope versus despair. By grappling with these democratic tensions, we conclude, urban communities can counter the dominant policy discourse of failing and turnaround schools to reimagine the promise of neighborhood schools as anchor democratic institutions in urban communities.



Historians of education have chronicled the essential link between schools and communities from a variety of perspectives, exploring how ideology, material conditions, and political struggles have shaped public education (Kaestle, 1983; Katz, 1987; Tyack, 1974). Yet the myopia of the present seems to dominate current reform discourse, its cult of innovation favoring decontextualized or “plug and play” models of education. Viewing school reform historically allows us to see how schools are tied to their particular contexts, breathing in and out the values, beliefs, and conditions of local communities. This link is especially important to acknowledge in the high-poverty urban communities targeted by school reformers. As Warren puts it, “[T]he fates of urban schools and communities are linked, yet school reformers and community-builders typically act as if they are not” (2005, p. 133).

In a recent report on school choice initiatives, Whitehurst claims that providing “a great neighborhood school for every child is fanciful” (2017, p. 12), a “pipedream” (p. 11) based on the idea that there will always be a normal distribution of good, bad, and average schools. The reform solution to improving public schools, he argues, is to expand school choice and close down schools at the “lower tail of the distribution” (p. 10). This bell curve perspective on the school system intersects with research that documents the over-representation of “bad” schools and school closures in urban communities (Green, 2017; Urban Institute, 2017). Abandoning these “lower tail” schools is a nearsighted strategy that fails to recognize the link between schools and the health of local communities.

This complex link between schools and communities in disadvantaged areas is examined in a recent review of international education research designed to understand the different purposes of school–community activities as well as the power dynamics that shape these activities (Kerr, Dyson, & Gallannaugh, 2016). The review focuses on eight types of activities, including schools as providers of services and facilities, schools developing communities’ social and civic capacity, schools as engines of area regeneration, schools developing community-responsive curricula and pedagogy, community members’ involvement in school governance, community organizing, parental choice, and communities establishing schools (Kerr et al., 2016). The authors found that much of the research across these activities took for granted the leading role of outside professionals and tended toward deficit conceptions of communities. They also found very little research on community members’ experience and views about their roles and power in schools.


In response, we frame our study from an asset-based perspective, building on the work of scholars who view education reform as community organizing (Anyon, 2009; Kozol, 1991; Lipman, 2004; Mediratta, Shah, & McAlister, 2009; Oakes & Rogers, 2006; Noguera, 2003; Rogers & Terriquez, 2009; Shirley, 1997; Warren, 2005; Warren & Mapp, 2011). This literature views community members and organizations as powerful constituents in the struggle for educational equity. Oakes and Rogers call for “grassroots organizing informed by public inquiry” (2006, p. 20), arguing that collaboration among education reformers and community members offers the “best hope for disrupting the logic of schooling that creates and sustains inequality” (p. 158). Collaboration can help ensure that school–community activities are mutual, based on shared interests, and not merely based on a position of “exchange, where each party gives the other something that serves its interest” (Baum, 2002, p. 25).

Outside of education, community development scholars offer a complementary perspective. In particular, Kretzmann and McKnight’s (1993) asset-based community development (ABCD) theory contrasts with needs-based approaches that focus on deficits and tend to frame community members as clients rather than citizens (Mathie & Cunningham, 2005). ABCD uses the concept of community capital to identify different types of assets that can be leveraged to achieve local goals. These assets include the skills of local residents; the power of local associations; the resources of public, private, and nonprofit institutions; the physical infrastructure and space in a community; economic resources; and the local history and culture of a neighborhood. Appreciative inquiry is a common strategy used in the initial phases of ABCD to focus action on strengths and capacities instead of problems such as poverty, violence, and malnutrition (Mathie & Cunningham, 2005). Yet while focusing on strengths may humanize community development, it also risks “running too close to contemporary neo-liberal notions of self-help and self-responsibility, and glossing over the structural inequalities that hamper personal and social development” (Gray, 2011, p. 10). It is crucial to focus on communities’ assets while remaining cognizant of, and actively seeking to address, structural inequalities that marginalize underserved communities.

Yosso’s (2005) community cultural wealth theory provides another helpful asset-based framework by mapping out six types of capital typically possessed by members of traditionally marginalized communities, but which are often ignored or suppressed by our schools and society. These forms of capital are: aspirational, linguistic, navigational, social, familial, and resistant. Particularly relevant to our study are the concepts of aspirational capital, how people maintain hope for the future in the face of challenges; navigational capital, how families maneuver their way through the school system; and resistant capital, how communities of color fight oppression and inequality.

Overall, our study focuses on the local history and culture of a school and neighborhood as an asset to inform a community school development effort in partnership with a public university. We approach this local history and culture from a perspective that recognizes the capacities, experiences, and strengths of the local community alongside the historic structural inequities that have defined community life since the school opened in 1926. Our stance is both appreciative and critical in an effort to inspire public inquiry and collaboration.


Our historical case study is also intended to inform scholarship on the broader reform effort to develop and sustain democratic community schools in urban neighborhoods. Framing community schools as a reform effort, however, runs the risk of decontextualizing it as a discrete model or innovation. A recent research review by Oakes, Maier, and Daniel (2017) documents the ample evidence for the effectiveness of community schooling by focusing on four mutually reinforcing features of successful community schools: integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices. The authors frame these pillars, however, not as discrete innovations but as mutually reinforcing and century-old concepts that continue to define good schooling, particularly in high-poverty communities where larger social and economic factors disadvantage children.

Our study takes a particular look at the democratic foundations of community schooling. With roots in Jane Addams’ Hull House and John Dewey’s schools as social centers, community schools were built upon the ideal of local, participatory democracy (Benson et al., 2017). As Dewey wrote, “Democracy must begin at home and its home is the neighborly community” (1927, p. 213). Yet democratic education is a political as well as an educational ideal, and there are many dimensions of democratic participation that extend across multiple local, state, and national arenas, each of which has legitimate authority over schooling (Gutmann, 1987). Moreover, communities are not monolithic in their interests; even amongst grassroots organizers and local advocates, power dynamics, tensions, and challenges inherent to bringing together disparate groups shape who has the authority to claim a given community (Ferman, 2017). Recognizing that local community schools are part of this broader political struggle over who should control schooling helps reveal several tensions related to the nature of school reform in democratic schooling.

From a democratic perspective, the means of reform or the process of change is about participation, collective problem-solving, and betterment (Lindbloom, 1990; Oakes, Quartz, Ryan, & Lipton, 2000). Framing reform in these terms focuses on the quality of democratic participation, guided by theories of relational justice or other ideas about how to solve problems together. In contrast, reform is often framed as an end, guided by theories of distributive justice, particularly equity-minded reforms aimed at redistributing access and educational goods to level the playing field. When reform is viewed as an end rather than a process of collective problem-solving, it risks being hijacked by the reform mill that preserves the status quo (Oakes et al., 2000). Attending to both the ends and means of reform is a perennial tension of democratic education. The community schools movement is tied deeply to both the democratic tradition of problem solving as well as the democratic ideal of equal educational opportunity (Benson et al., 2017).

As an effort to develop local communities and ensure the health, education, and well-being of all community members, the community schools movement foregrounds both the public and private aims of education. Schooling as a private good stems from the longstanding and widely held belief in American education as an engine for individual social mobility, the “great equalizer of the conditions of men” (Mann, 1848/1960, p. 87). Alongside this goal, we also expect education to prepare citizens, ensure democratic equality, and advance “a positive passion for the public good” (as cited in Sandel, 1996, p. 126). Yet, as Larabee argues, the domination of the social mobility goal “has reshaped education into a commodity for the purposes of status attainment and has elevated the pursuit of credentials over the acquisition of knowledge” (1997, p. 39). Getting the tension right between the public and private aims of schooling is a perennial balancing act at the core of our liberal democratic society.

A third tension that defines democratic education focuses on the lived human experience of its participants. West explains, “To be part of the democratic tradition is to be a prisoner of hope. And you cannot be a prisoner of hope without engaging in a form of struggle that keeps the best of the past alive” (2001, p. 12). There are many accounts of the persistent and at times heroic struggles of educators, parents, students, community members, and others working day in and day out to advance educational equity. Yet, as Duncan-Andrade (2009) cautions, we must be wary of a mythical hope that is ahistorical, depoliticized, and celebrates individual exception. Instead, he argues, we must advance a critical hope in the face of despair.

These three democratic tensions—reform means versus ends, public versus private aims of education, and critical hope versus despair—shaped our historical case study of one neighborhood community school. Using an asset-based framework, we investigated the link between the school and community, guided by the following research questions:

(1)   What are the multiple and overlapping demographic, political, educational policy, social, and economic contexts that have shaped or defined the history of the school since its opening?

(2) How has this history shaped the community’s relationship to the school now?

(3) How does this history inform current efforts to increase public will and community engagement at the school?



We approached this historical case study as participants of a local design team comprised of university and school partners charged with re-envisioning a struggling neighborhood middle school as a K–12 university-assisted community school (Benson et al., 2017). We framed the case study as a research–practice partnership (Coburn & Penuel, 2016; Quartz et al., 2017) aimed at informing a new school design process as well as the larger field of research on community school development and educational reform. To meet both of these aims, we focused on a single urban public school as the unit of analysis and bounded our case by considering the school’s reform history in relation to the overlapping demographic, political, social, and economic contexts that have shaped or defined the school since its opening in 1926. The school is representative of the growing number of neighborhood urban schools experiencing declining enrollment and public disinvestment throughout the United States. While we chose to mask the identity of the school, calling it “Neighborhood Middle School” (NMS), our focus on a particular local history required identifying the city as Los Angeles, California.

As described above, we framed the school’s history as a community asset and therefore used the case study to analyze how this history has shaped the community’s current relationship to the school, with a particular focus on interpreting how this relationship might be strengthened to increase public trust and enrollment. In this regard, our case study design is both descriptive and interpretive. Recognizing the vast historical scope of the study, we draw upon several sources and established histories of Los Angeles to describe the school’s history and context, focusing our primary data collection on the most recent 15 years of reform history. Our interpretation of the school’s current reform context is shaped by our empathetic relationship to the school and community. We have worked hard to understand how local actors view the school and have tried to capture multiple and overlapping perspectives (Stake, 1995).


Data sources included in-depth semistructured interviews, artifacts, and primary and secondary historical sources. We conducted semistructured interviews with a purposive sample of 14 current and past staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and community members who were recruited at school and community events as those with personal experience and history with the school. Snowball sampling allowed us to identify a diverse sample of local actors, many of whom shared multiple perspectives (e.g., as a former student and current teacher). For this reason, we have listed the interviewees’ relationship(s) to the school in Table 1. The interviews, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, were conducted by the authors and audio-recorded for subsequent transcription. Interviews were focused on participants’ experiences with the school over time, their understanding of the school’s relationship with its community, and their own beliefs about the role of neighborhood schools and NMS in particular.

Table 1. Interview Participants


Relationship to NMS


Local resident, current NMS staff or faculty


Local resident, local pastor, NMS alumnus


Local resident, parent of school-age children, NMS alumnus


NMS staff or faculty, NMS alumna


Parent of school-age children, NMS staff or faculty


Local resident, former NMS staff or faculty


Local resident, parent of school-age children


NMS alumna


Local resident, NMS staff or faculty


Local resident, NMS staff or faculty


NMS staff or faculty


Local resident, local pastor


Local resident, former substitute NMS staff or faculty


NMS staff or faculty

The artifacts and secondary historical records of the neighborhood (Baldassare, 1994; Klein & Schiesl, 1990; Kun & Pulido, 2014; Sides, 2003) allowed us to contextualize our school-specific data within the area’s larger social, political, and economic context. Historical artifacts included physical archival materials in the school’s library, such as school yearbooks and student publications that dated from the 1920s to the present, as well as school district- and state-level public records available, U.S. Census Bureau data (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017), and records from the research–practice partnership design team (see Table 2 for a complete list of documents).

Table 2. Records and Documents

Historical Records

School yearbooks and student newspapers (1926–present; not all years available)

1937–1939 Los Angeles Residential Security Map

U.S. Census Tract Population by Ethnicity, 1930–2010

Administrative Records

School district list of schools enrolling students zoned to NMS

List of charter schools in South Los Angeles

School district attendance boundary maps


Los Angeles Times article and data on NMS neighborhood

Meeting Notes

Partnership Design Team, 2016–2017


Before conducting the interviews, we created a preliminary set of codes based on our research questions and the theoretical frameworks described above. The initial round of coding of the interview transcripts, however, drew solely on the participants’ own words using InVivo and Structural Coding (Saldaña, 2013) using MaxQDA qualitative data analysis software. Upon completion of this round, we met to discuss emerging themes and find common ground among the research team. In the second round, we conducted another layer of coding that revisited the preliminary codes related to the research questions and theoretical frameworks described above. At this point, we were able to put these two sets of codes—the InVivo and the preliminary—together through Axial Coding (Saldaña, 2013), collapsing the concrete codes derived from the experiences of participants into the more abstract concepts we found in the literature. Some of the InVivo codes spoke directly to the history of the school or its community, while others gave us a clearer picture of how the theories used played out in daily life, which is reflected in how the sub-codes are organized. Engaging in analysis in this way allowed us both to hear the voices of the participants in the analysis process and to contextualize them within theory broadly, rather than drawing solely upon one or the other.

The previously mentioned democratic tension of reform ends versus means provides an example of this process. Prior to conducting interviews, our reading of theories on democratic schooling highlighted how a constant churn of top-down reform efforts can hinder rather than support the improvement of a school (Oakes et al., 2000). As participants, especially the long-term teachers, began to describe their experiences over the last 15 years of repeated, ephemeral programs and district-imposed reforms, we heard echoes of those theories, even when they were not invoked directly. One such example came from Grace, a longtime NMS educator:

It seemed to me that [the school’s reconstitution] was all around test scores and because we were program improvement for five years, and because things didn’t seem to be getting better around that, they decided—whomever—to do this reconfiguration where you . . . change the name, and people would have to interview to get their job back. . . . [T]hat just went away too. I don’t think anyone bought into the Prep at NMS. I think they kind of saw a flimsy attempt to change the perception maybe of the community thought of the school.

As we coded this interview with Grace, we were struck by a number of things in this small excerpt. In it, she described multiple reform efforts in a short period of time, their ineffectiveness, distance between reform decision-makers and the school’s faculty and staff, the reconstitution’s fleeting life at NMS, lack of buy-in from the local actors, and distrust in these reforms. In this and other similar excerpts, participants spoke to the cycle of reform efforts, their decision-making autonomy and authority, and their experiences of top-down reforms from the district. Together, these codes highlighted this democratic tension between the ends of school reform and the means employed to achieve them.

All stages of the analysis were done together as a team, with codes being created, reviewed, categorized and discussed together to ensure internal reliability through a common understanding of each code as well as the overall coding structure. Member checks with interview participants, the research–practice partnership design team, and members of the broader community ensured validity from the perspective of those deeply embedded within the school context (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Through this process, 355 parent codes and sub-codes emerged, drawn from the research questions and through analytic induction. (A detailed selection of the coding structure can be found in Appendix C, and the full codebook can be obtained by contacting the authors.) We explored themes through iterative writing of analytic memos, regular research team discussions, and the construction of a visual school history timeline juxtaposing the patterns of school reform, demographic change, and community history. This historical research and timeline construction took place simultaneously alongside our conducting, transcribing, and analyzing of the interviews. Through an iterative process, the interviews and historical research informed one another, as the historical research allowed us to contextualize the interview data within broader historical and social patterns, and the interviews drove further pursuit of secondary sources and artifacts.


We begin our findings with this visual history (Figure 1) in order to help orient the reader to the scope of the school’s experience over time. This visual representation served a dual purpose as an artifact that helped the school design team understand and discuss NMS’s history, particularly the recent history of revolving reform efforts and expanding charter school options.

Figure 1. Neighborhood Middle School Historical Timeline



Neighborhood Middle School opened in 1926 amidst a modern school movement designed to tackle the challenges of Los Angeles’ rapidly growing and diversifying immigrant population through expanded services such as cafeterias and afterschool programs (Raftery, 1992). A 1927 school newsletter proclaimed, “First Year at Neighborhood Has Romance of Pioneering.” This enthusiastic review covered the finishing and beautifying of school grounds, the creation of student and teacher committees, and, as described by one contemporaneous NMS publication, the “wholesome social experience” that 1920s education reformers viewed as critical to the healthy growth of children (Raftery, 1992). The school’s pioneering spirit continued over the next decade, with additions to the physical plant; the introduction of sports, arts, and interest clubs; and growth of the student body and faculty. NMS’s early years solidified its place in the city as a reputable school. Grace, a current NMS employee and lifelong community member, recalled, “It was considered one of the best schools in the community. When I grew up and you told people that you went to Neighborhood, it was like, ‘Wow, you go to Neighborhood?!’”

Racially Restrictive Housing Covenants

Despite the historical memory of pride in the community, the robust social environment at NMS did not include everyone. Progressive reformers’ vision of schools as centers of community life and an avenue for creating and maintaining a culturally homogenous Los Angeles was complicated by the broader societal reaction to the growing non-White population (Raftery, 1992). Records from the Los Angeles Board of Education document a battle between those who believed schools should remain integrated and provide services to support and welcome students of color, and those who favored segregation, fueled by the intensification of racism and nationalism in the West during the First World War (Raftery, 1992). Foreshadowing the 1950s legal battles to come, segregating students based on race was deemed illegal by the school board, yet neighborhood-based school assignment practices and racially restrictive housing covenants practically allowed White students to remain isolated in schools with mostly other White students (Raftery, 1992).

The 1937–1939 Los Angeles Residential Security Map (Figure 2) displays a color-coded Los Angeles with redlined neighborhoods shaded according to a grade based on their economic and racial composition (Marciano et al., 2009). The area surrounding NMS in 1937 was labeled a “third grade” neighborhood that was described as “local professional and businessmen, white collar workers and skilled artisans,” and its racial composition was described as “few % foreign families” and “0% Negroes” (Marciano et al., 2009). Yearbook images from the 1920s and 1930s confirm that almost all NMS students appeared to be White.

Figure 2. 1937–1939 Los Angeles Residential Security Map


Wartime Employment and Nationalism

The onset of World War II created significant economic opportunities for a growing labor force in Los Angeles, converging with the Second Great Migration of Black people leaving the South in search of a less violent, oppressive environment and better economic opportunities (Gregory, 2009; Hooks & Bloomquist, 1992; Sides, 2003; Wilkerson, 2010). In 1941, Executive Order 8801 banned all racial discrimination in wartime defense industries, which granted people of color greater access to mainstream blue-collar jobs (McCone & Christopher, 1965; Sides, 2003). Black people poured in from the South to fill these jobs, but restrictive housing covenants constrained where they settled and kept the community surrounding NMS predominantly White.

During the tumultuous period surrounding WWII, the atmosphere at Neighborhood remained hopeful, active, and seeking change. As the visual timeline describes, students from other neighborhoods were bused to NMS, increasing enrollment to 1,635, and progressive ideals were replaced by an emphasis on the basics. The monthly newsletter featured student-written articles that captured how they were grappling with the effects of nationalism during wartime. Students expressed a swell in national pride and celebrated the voluntary military enlistment of alumni as well as eight of their teachers. They organized fundraisers and drives to support the troops, and even highlighted how a local high school bought government bonds to finance a fighter jet. This sense of nationalism, however, also revealed racism and xenophobia. In 1943, for example, an article in the school newsletter victoriously proclaimed that NMS students will no longer fear, but that now the “Japs” will know what it is like to experience “fear and cringe.”

“The Power to Wipe Out Prejudice.”

As the war came to an end, civil rights activism in Los Angeles was spurred by the contributions of people of color who gave their lives to the war and wartime industries. NMS students began actively considering their moral role in ameliorating racism. The racialized statement above contrasts with the postwar culture of the school, illustrated by a moving essay written in 1950 by a Neighborhood student who argued that there was no place for racial and religious discrimination in a democratic nation. Calling fellow students to action, she wrote, “We, the youth of America, have the power to wipe out prejudice.” She challenged readers to confront their thoughts of eliteness over other races, and to question how they would react to their own neighbor if the neighbor were to suddenly change his or her skin color. These ideas aligned with civil rights battles to challenge housing restrictions. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling barring restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) was one of the first major legal decisions that initiated demographic changes (Darden, 1995; Marciano et al., 2009; Raftery, 1992; Sides, 2003). In the area surrounding NMS, racial integration began in the 1950s; the 1960 census indicated the area had a substantial number of residents of color (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017).

These legal triumphs for racial integration in Los Angeles were met with vigorous anti-Black sentiment (Sides, 2003). Many White families sold their homes and left the neighborhoods as Black residents moved in, while others went on the offensive and threatened White sellers and Black buyers alike. Many White residents cited concern for the welfare of their children and their education as a reason to maintain segregation (Raftery, 1992; Schneider, 2008; Sides, 2003). As Black people became more visible in public life and sought to integrate into schools in Los Angeles, “an angry and aggressive wave of anti-Black racism” (Sides, 2003, p. 134) portrayed Black people as undesirable and unsafe, stigmas that lived in lawsuits and legal loopholes for nearly three decades despite the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 (Bell, 1980; Schneider, 2008; Sides, 2003). Angelenos who refused to live near Black people and send their children to school with Black children left the local school district at an alarming rate. In the decade between 1960 and 1970, NMS’s neighborhood went from more than 60% White to more than 80% Black, while district-wide, the Los Angeles Unified School District lost 80,000 White students as Black and Latino enrollment increased (Schneider, 2008). White flight exacerbated racial tension throughout the city, and in 1965 the Watts Uprising made public the excessive police brutality against people of color as well as the lack of economic opportunities and political representation. These events continued setting the stage for civil rights struggles and a profound inequality between schools that exists today.


Throughout the later part of the 20th century, Neighborhood Middle School’s community fought for civil rights outside and inside of the school walls. Living conditions worsened in South Central Los Angeles as social, political, and economic divestment had serious ramifications throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. “Reindustrialization” during the Reagan administration shifted the types of manufacturing jobs available in the community away from the relatively high-quality and high-paying auto, aerospace, and steel industries to lower-quality sectors like toys and garments (Pastor, 2014). As these manufacturing plants closed, tens of thousands of steady jobs that were the basis of prosperity for communities of color disappeared and were replaced by lower-paying jobs (Pastor, 2014; Sides, 2003). Unionization rates fell from 34% in 1971 to 19% in 1987 as the neighborhood “[bled] good jobs” (Pastor, 2014, p. 46), lessening the political power that could be wielded by community residents. By 1990, unemployment rates for Black youth in South Central were as high as 48% (Gibbs & Bankhead, 2000).

Gangs and Safety

Without access to steady employment and in the urban vacuum of young leadership after the demise of the Black Panther Party, many people found work and affiliation in gangs and drug sales in the 1980s. As Davis (1990) wrote, “[D]eterioration in the labor-market position of young Black men is a major reason why the counter economy of drug dealing and youth crime has burgeoned” (p. 306). Crack cocaine flooded inner cities during the 1980s as membership grew for two of the most well-known gangs in the United States, both of which called South Central home: the Crips and the Bloods (Brown, Vigil, & Taylor, 2012; Sides, 2003). For middle school students, gang activity was present in the daily life of the school. Gene, then a teacher at NMS, recalled that the school’s geographical location straddled gang territories with “the 8-Treys who were coming from the southern part and the Rollin 60s who were coming from the northern part.” Kevin, an NMS student in the 1980s, explained his experience:

Where Neighborhood is located, it’s kind of your separation point from one gang territory to another. So basically if you use the front door, you were from one particular gang. If you came in through the back door, you were in another particular gang. So it was hard to go to a school where you had so much gang activity. And you remember, this was in the ’80s, when crack had just [been] introduced to the inner city. And it hit our community really, really hard and you could most definitely see it in the schools. You could see it in the students; you could see it in our teachers. . . . I mean, everybody had some kind of involvement in it and it just became one big game throughout the day. And it’s hard to learn in that type of environment.

For Kevin, this dynamic in which “everybody” was in some way wrapped up in gang and drug activity meant that he experienced the school as “very close to Hell” instead of as the “safe haven” he believed schools should be for young people.

In contrast, others experienced NMS as a site of community, hope, and joy. Both Amani, a former student, and Gene described NMS in the 1990s as a safe haven in the broader community. Gene remembered that both community members and teachers—including those who lived in other neighborhoods—felt ownership over the school and were invested in the young people who filled its halls. Amani illustrated how she experienced adults’ investment in students and the safety that the school provided for her. NMS was a “very safe place” that provided “stability,” where “everything kind of came together,” even though gang rivalries “would be played out sometimes during school.” For Amani and Gene, caring relationships built between teachers, staff, students, and families provided a sense of safety that was harder to come by in the surrounding neighborhood.

Chronic, simultaneous under-policing and over-policing marked these decades in South Central. Violent crime—and in particular, homicides—overwhelmed the LAPD, whose too-often weak responses did little to solve or deter crime (Leovy, 2015). Pretextual policing focused merely on control and the appearance of order replaced substantive police work (Herbert, 1997), eroding what Weber called the state monopoly on violence (Leovy, 2015) and leaving it to community members to seek justice themselves. Internally, area homicide detectives characterized the early 1990s as “the Big Years” due to the sheer volume of cases they were tasked with solving; in 1993, the homicide rate for Black men in Los Angeles County was comparable with the rate of death for U.S. soldiers deployed to Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion (Leovy, 2015). After decades of rebuffed efforts to improve their lives and communities in spite of lasting poverty, unemployment, segregation, drugs, and poor policing, South Central’s residents were sparked to unrest in 1992 when a White jury acquitted four White LAPD officers who had been charged with beating Rodney King (Sides, 2003). The flashpoint for what came to be known as the L.A. Riots was less than a mile from NMS (Herbert, 1997; Morrison & Lowry, 1994).

Busing and Permits to Leave

The reform of public schooling during the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by attempts to integrate schools and advance equal educational opportunity. The local school district, under a 1970 court order, began to address the de jure and de facto segregation patterns that governed school assignments for students through mandatory student reassignment, but a lawsuit and state ballot measure designed to prohibit such mandatory efforts meant the district had to revert to neighborhood-based student assignment patterns (Martinez HoSang, 2014). By the 1980s, the district only had voluntary measures to integrate its schools: magnet programs in which specialized curricular programs drew diverse student bodies (Alkin, Atwood, Baker, Doby, & Doherty, 1983) and an opt-in busing program that transported students to schools outside their neighborhoods called Permits With Transportation (PWT) (Alkin et al., 1983; Martinez HoSang, 2014). These programs were generally “one-way,” as Black and Latino students left inner-city schools for predominantly White, more affluent schools, but students from those schools tended not to attend school in communities of color (Alkin et al., 1983; Martinez HoSang, 2014).

Many parents of children in schools such as NMS chose to participate in the magnet and PWT programs, selecting schools that they believed to be safer and higher quality. In so doing, parents exercised agency in advocating on behalf of their children, pursuing what they believed to be better educational options outside their community. By 1983, 21,000 students participated in transfers out of inner-city Los Angeles schools (Alkin et al., 1983). Over time, however, this pattern of busing had a detrimental impact on the young people who were left behind in neighborhood schools. Information on participation was hard for families to obtain and the process was opaque (Alkin et al., 1983), meaning that students who were able to participate in the program tended to be those with families with the greatest abilities to navigate the system.

For those whose families lacked the navigational capital to opt into these early school-choice programs, the prospect of a good education often remained elusive, as it did for Kevin. Describing friends’ experiences at their schools outside the neighborhood, he said, “I didn’t know what . . . they were talking about. We didn’t do any of that stuff at our school. I didn’t know I had to get bused . . . to get a good education.” Yet while the transfer students may have had greater access to quality educational experiences, Kevin observed that these opportunities were a double-edged sword. He recognized the benefit these students were able to obtain, but also was acutely aware of the lessons he was learning daily. As he explains:

It’s crazy because the kids that got bused out that still lived in that neighborhood? Most of them are in Inglewood Cemetery or they’re . . . they came out worse than we did as inner-city kids staying here. Because when you come home—when you get bused out to Disneyland and you come home to reality, it’s hard to comprehend. So here we stayed a lot more grounded, and when they got thrown back into reality, they didn’t realize this is life, this is not a game.

In a 1980s effort to retain Black students and curb what she called the “brain drain” of students fleeing her school on PWT buses, the NMS principal at the time created an accelerated honors program at the school. Knowing that plenty of bright, motivated young people lived in the surrounding community, she reserved the third floor of the building for honors students, providing a rarefied air of learning that many thought impossible in urban schools and that parents were looking to other schools to provide. Though that honors program has long since folded, a plaque celebrating its excellence still hangs in the NMS main office.


NMS started the new century fully enrolled, with a peak of 1,807 students in 2001. As the visual history captures, for the next 15 years the school’s enrollment declined steadily, reaching a low point of 315 students in 2017. During the same period, 37 new charter schools opened within a 2.5-mile radius of NMS, including 17 serving middle school students (see Figure 3). Enrollment in these local charters grew quickly, from 140 middle schoolers in 2003 to 3,276 in 2016; however, records were not available to determine which of these students resided within the NMS attendance boundary. A 2015 district analysis of local enrollment patterns revealed that 812 students, who had not moved to “independent” charter schools, were zoned to NMS, yet only 328 attended. The remaining 484 neighborhood students attended 70 other district schools, including non-charter traditional schools, magnet schools, and a handful of “dependent” charters developed at longstanding LAUSD sites. Nicole’s child, who boarded a PWT bus outside of NMS at 6:45 a.m. each morning, was among the 482 local students leaving the community. These data suggest that the NMS’s declining enrollment has been fueled by an increase in local charter school options as well as the longstanding tradition of leaving the neighborhood to attend other LAUSD public schools.   

Figure 3. 482 Students Zoned to NMS Attended 70 Magnet and PWT Schools in 2015


Students Left Behind

This increase in the number of school-choice options for NMS-zoned families, both within and outside of their neighborhoods, aligns with the larger cultural shift toward marketization in education. Over the past 16 years, this market force has also increased the proportion of special needs, foster, and homeless youth that NMS serves, following the well-documented pattern that students with the highest need and least social capital are left behind by school-choice initiatives (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Dudley-Marling & Baker, 2012; Lacireno-Paquet, Holyoke, Moser, & Henig, 2002). This wave of rapid change has given some stakeholders the feeling that, “We’re just left here with the ones who don’t know how to go find a better educational environment.” By 2017, 30% of NMS students had Individualized Education Plans, prompting one respondent to call the school a “special education magnet.” In addition, 13% were in foster care or homeless, a figure that was estimated to be much higher by local school staff. As Figure 4 describes, these subgroup percentages are considerably higher than the overall district averages, both for charter and non-charter schools.

Figure 4. Student Enrollment by Subgroup, 2016–2017


This shift in NMS’s student population as well as other social factors related to poverty, racism, and violence set the stage for the 2004 classification of NMS as a persistently “failing school” under No Child Left Behind. Within this context of heightened federal oversight and accountability, NMS experienced serial whole-school reform efforts intended to “turn around” its fate.

The Churning Reform Mill

As visualized in the reform timeline, NMS experienced repeated educational reform efforts between 2002 and 2016, both internal and external to the school, including reconstitution, district mentoring programs, public school choice, charter schools, and charter co-location bids. In 2002, NMS was identified as a State Scholastic Audit School, prompting the district to include it in a Targeted Schools Program, a reform initially developed in 1987 to support a set of predominantly Black elementary schools near NMS. The program required school faculty to wear professional attire (“women had to wear nylons”), be punctual, hold high expectations for all students, use a scripted reading program, and attend 20 days of professional development and other meetings. The comprehensive and well-funded reform program was also framed as “an incubator for leadership,” encouraging teachers to become coaches and administrators, as well as a community engagement effort, with clubs (e.g., All Boys to Men), assemblies, health programs, computer labs, community liaisons, and parent training.

Veteran NMS educator Grace joined the school in 2004, recruited by her friend and assistant principal who was doing “great things” such as daily affirmations, a big push to increase test scores, and implementing resources to keep the campus “shiny” and “extremely clean.” Grace also recalled how the Targeted Schools Program impacted her teaching:

. . . there were a lot of things we were required to do in the classroom: configuration, bulletin boards, the white boards. There were things we were expected to have in the classroom and they were real strict about it. . . . I think as a teacher it helped a lot, because you develop kind of a discipline of your teaching. So you couldn’t just figure out what you were going to do on your way to school. You had to have a lesson plan. It had to be obvious when they walked in that you had a lesson plan and you had graded work with a rubric and the criteria.

In contrast, another teacher offered a critical recollection: teachers initially resisted the program but were told by the union to just do it because of the extra resources. By 2008, however, the reform tides in the district had shifted and reform leaders announced that the main tenets of the program would be continued by an externally developed “research-based professional learning program” that would train administrators and teacher facilitators in a “7-step protocol” using data to set goals and improve practice. Grace reported, however, that the Targeted Schools Program ended in 2008, probably due to a loss of funding.

In 2009, with the charter movement gaining steam, the district passed a “Public School Choice” motion to address chronic underachievement at schools such as NMS. A competitive Request for Proposals was released to generate innovative ideas for turning around failing campuses. By 2010, a proposal was under development to rename and restart NMS with a new mascot and teaching faculty. As Grace recalls, “They decided, whomever, to do this reconfiguration where you redo your school, change the name, and people would have to interview to get their job back.” In March 2011, the proposal was approved by the school board “with reservations” because it lacked specificity and a strong professional development plan. In 2011, all teachers had to reapply for their jobs, and many left because they felt insulted by the process. As one teacher reported, “It hurt the school and chased away good people.” Another teacher added, “The principal at that time didn’t have the support of the staff that she had. Testing wasn’t getting any better and enrollment kept decreasing.” Asked how long the reconstituted school reform lasted, Grace responded, “Not long, because that just went away too. It seems it went away when our principal went away.” Overall, many teachers experienced Public School Choice as “a flimsy attempt to change the perception maybe of what the community thought of the school.”

NMS’s negative reputation spilled over to another external reform effort: a state law (Proposition 39) passed in 2000 that allowed charter schools to take over unused space in district school buildings. Given NMS’s plummeting enrollment, the school was targeted for five shared space bids between 2006 and 2016. The first four bids were rejected (see Figure 1, P39 house crossed out) for a variety of reasons, including the school’s reputation as a “bad school.” The fifth bid was successful, yet the new charter only lasted one year because it could not sustain its enrollment at the site. Overlapping with the charter bids, a new whole-school reform was attempted in 2015 when NMS was once again identified as a “failing school.” The main thrust of the change effort this time was a partnership with a mentor middle school chosen by the district to inspire and support improvement at NMS.

Shortly after the mentor school reform was initiated, another partnership was proposed with a public research university interested in transforming NMS into a K–12 community school with the aim of building back its enrollment and reimagining it as a thriving neighborhood school. This case study was conducted in the early stages of the partnership, and has already demonstrated potential to turn around the negative perception and isolation NMS has experienced over the past three decades. Nicole and Kevin shared that although they had not enrolled their children at NMS in the past because of its reputation as an unsafe environment where “their staff don’t care,” they both decided in 2016 to keep their children in the neighborhood to attend the new NMS summer program run by the university partnership. Moreover, as members of the design team and school community, we engaged with school leaders, teachers, students, and university and district representatives in the collaborative development of a proposal to the district that would grant the NMS community greater autonomy over their school. The proposal process laid the foundation for a long-term vision of the partnership as a vehicle for democratic engagement and the investment of multiple constituent groups in the future of the school and community. Three visible changes that were implemented in the 2017–2018 school year as a result of the approval of the autonomous school proposal included a permanent shared governance board, increased extended learning opportunities through field trips and a summer institute, and high school expansion beginning with a ninth grade.

School Branding

In 2003, the region surrounding NMS was renamed “South Los Angeles” instead of “South Central” in a rebranding effort, even as crime rates declined. As the reform history above illustrates, renaming and rebranding was also a strategy used to restore NMS’s reputation. This idea that public schools and communities are brands aligns with the notion that students, families, and community members are consumers that choose (or buy) private goods, such as schooling and housing. The legacy of voluntary busing and the growth of charter schools in the community has affirmed the value of school brands and cemented word on the street that you should not choose NMS. As Betty, an NMS employee, explained her experience at a local restaurant:

You know you sit close to people, and I saw a lady that I knew but I didn’t know her directly. . . . She said, “Where do you work?’ I said, “Oh, at Neighborhood Middle School,” and she said, “Oh honey, I’m so sorry.” And I was like, I got that early on.

James and Ida, both current NMS teachers, share stories of people calling them “crazy” for staying at the school. Kevin, a former NMS student and local resident who sends his son to a charter school, advised, “Tear it down. Tear it down and start over.” Every person interviewed agreed that the school had a negative reputation in the community.

Probing how to improve the school’s reputation provided insight into the community’s expectations for public schooling. Several people noted the need for better communication between the school and community, including aggressive marketing campaigns and outreach. Lauryn explained the current context for choosing schools in the neighborhood: “Commercial based. All promotion, all marketing. I see marketing and advertisements everywhere for these schools. For example KIPP, I can even see their little logo in my head right now.” She and others focused on the need for a stronger school brand. Speaking of the school’s latest partnership with a university, local resident Nicole and several others predicted, “Once you put the [university] name on it, people are going to come.”

Other people suggested updating the school’s appearance and improving its cleanliness. As Darren, a local resident and former substitute teacher at NMS, explained,

Maybe it’s the look . . . it seems simple and you may not be looking for that simple answer. But people are fickle and they just sometimes it’s just the look. And it looks like an old school. Fresh coat of paint, you know, an Ivy League kind of spin on it could easily make that school, you know, raise up in terms of the eyes of the community a couple percentage points.

While several people commented about the importance of a clean and welcoming campus, they also agreed that the school needed much more than new paint and spin. Some called for better or more committed teachers—“people who really want to be here.” Others focused on the students, their low achievement levels or poor behavior. Even a current NMS teacher opted not to send their child to the school “because I know the type of students that are here. I wouldn’t want him being around those, maybe even picking up bad habits.”

“It’s Not Just About Education”

Pastor Morrison offered a different perspective: “I think the challenge is for parents to feel that the schools in their neighborhood are the best schools.” Ida’s exchange with a former student captures the same idea:

I saw a young man not long ago. He was outside and I was like, “You still waiting for your parent?” He was like, “I don't go here anymore.” And I’m like, “I thought you were still here! Where are you?” “I’m at Marina Del Rey!” “Okay . . . And what have you found at Marina Del Rey?” “Nothing, really.” [Laugh] I guess it’s just a mindset: I’ve got to go someplace else.”

Others disagreed, pointing to a litany of resources that schools in other communities enjoyed. NMS employee Lauryn put it bluntly: “We gotta get like the Jones’s. We have to provide things that people are paying for. We have to find these programs, because it’s not just about education.” Grace echoed the need for enrichment programs and “something special that no one else has to offer.” Local resident Darren stressed the need for a sports program and “events the community can go to and actually see.” Others harken back to the programs NMS used to offer when it was fully enrolled. Former student Natalie recalls, “I was part of plenty of things. We had band, drill team, choir, chorus, drama, art, and you had a lot.” Still others focused on needed social services such as dental care and health clinics. As Ida explained, one of her students couldn’t see the board and needed glasses. Years ago, she could have handed her a flier with information on how to get a free pair of glasses. “We need to bring those back,” Ida explained, “because we need to really nurture our kids more.”

Former NMS teacher Gene went beyond the need for programs and services to focus on relationships between the community and school to support young people:

Make it a family kind of thing . . . a community where people think “this is ours.” And folks are doing whatever they have to do to make this happen. . . . You want to change something? You have to make people know that they’re valued and let them know that we need you and more importantly that we’re going to do good stuff for your kids.

Pastor Morrison agreed, sharing, “We want to be part of the school, want to feel like we’re a community,” but was frustrated by how difficult it was to connect with NMS. Several people talked about the value of community and the public purposes of schooling. Amani, for example, explained, “I think it’s vital to the structure, just the school, that the community steps in.” Grace added:

I think the people in this community, they are very invested. Whether they have children here or not they look out for the kids in the community. People will call us if this is something they think we should know about.

For many, the idea of neighborhood schooling was important—to a point. Lauryn shared her view of the importance of neighborhood schooling:

But it’s important that they stay within their neighborhood because we are the people they are going to grow up with. The teacher that was there could possibly be the teacher that was there when your brother was there, could possibly be the teacher when your mom was there, when your dad was there . . . so having that legacy makes you feel good.

Indeed, one teacher at NMS has a growing spread of photographs in his classroom of the families in which he has taught both parent and child, speaking to his long-term commitment to NMS. Kevin agreed, adding that “From a kid’s standpoint, well definitely they should go to the school in their own community.” He went on, however, to explain why his son attends a charter school instead of NMS: “The playing field is not fair.” Several people elaborated on this point, saying that children should only attend neighborhood schools “if the quality is good.”

Gene’s comment that “people vote with their feet” captures the tension at play between voice and democratic engagement on one hand and choice and individual agency on the other. The “mindset” that local residents have to leave to find quality schooling rests upon the busing decades, the agency of local residents, and the complicated relationship between the school and its community. As Darren explained, “Good schools make the surrounding communities feel good about themselves.”

“A Beautiful Struggle”

April 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the L.A. Riots. The violent protests symbolized the magnitude of racial tension within the city and catalyzed efforts to improve and rebrand the neighborhoods within South Los Angeles. Yet an analysis of multiple social indicators reveals that very little has changed since then (Ong, Cheng, Pech, & Gonzalez, 2017). As the visual history displays, poverty and unemployment rates in the school’s immediate area have increased slightly and violent crime remains high. One local resident empathized with a parent’s decision to bus their children to another school: “Like if I know my kid has to walk three blocks through crack trades and prostitutes selling themselves, I rather them get on the bus and go somewhere.” Another parent explained that “You want your kid safe, you don’t want them surrounded by the elements.” Amani reflected on the effect of these “elements” on students: “Kids have things going on that’s not natural and not normal. . . . They’re having to contend with all these extra things and their own emotions and sometimes they’re not able to.”

Some local residents report different experiences. Steven lives near the school and explained that it is “not a bad area in the inner city” and is surrounded by a number of churches, many with education departments that support students. He estimated that 70% of local families are churchgoers, dividing along racial lines, and added, “They say Sunday is the most segregated.” A local newspaper story portrayed the neighborhood as “an oasis from crime,” chronicling the efforts of a grandmother who “organizes monthly block meetings and cleanups and is the ear for neighbors who want to talk about graffiti, suspicious activity and wayward children.” The single-family houses lining the blocks surrounding NMS are of the same era, built in the 1920s and 1930s, and currently sell for $400,000 to $600,000 (Zillow.com, 2017). Pride of ownership is evident. Well-tended gardens and tidy front porches contrast sharply with the “crack trades and prostitutes” that dominate a major city street a couple of blocks from the school.

It is amid these contrasts that life at NMS has been experienced over the last five decades. As described above, the massive demographic shifts in the 1960s, when the school population changed from majority White to majority Black, situated NMS in the epicenter of the civil rights movement. Steven recalls that in 1968 his parents chose to send him to NMS instead of a middle school closer to their home because it “was regarded as a better school.” With a strong reputation, NMS students pictured in the 1968 yearbook appeared to be thriving while living through tumultuous social upheaval. The busing years ushered in the first wave of flight from NMS to schools throughout the city. Efforts in the 1980s to keep “the intellectuals” included an honors program, which created “their own little world on the third floor.” Attracting “good” students has been a persistent struggle for NMS, exacerbated by the second wave of flight, this time to charter schools between 2001 and 2017. As the hallways emptied out during this time, the students left were those who faced the greatest challenges of poverty, homelessness, violence, and other forms of structural inequality. This marginalized student population only reinforced the school’s bad reputation. As Natalie shared, “I have seen good kids come to this school and leave. A lot.”

NMS has a handful of veteran educators who survived the reconstitution of 2011 or returned upon its demise, have weathered the neighborhood “elements,” and have watched the exodus of “good kids.” They are appropriately wary of the churning reform mill yet they understand the need to compete in today’s educational marketplace. They express love for their students, while also recognizing the deep injustices that shape their lives. James reflected on “a lot of different trials and tribulations, from the gangs to hearing the stories of these kids to struggling with my own self and asking why am I here.” He offers the following insights:

There’s no one story. I always say it’s a beautiful struggle and it’s hard work. Hard work . . . it’s hard to see the stories, to see the lack of promise. You know, what this district, or what public education has done to this population of students is unfair, where it’s like apples and oranges and where you are, based on where you live or your socioeconomics and that’s unfair. And so knowing that, and knowing that we have the holes, I still think that they deserve someone that’s going to be as real and true. . . . I’m not a magician, I can’t fix the world. I don’t want to say our system is broken, but I can only do my best to try to plant some seeds and some of those will go on.


Looking back to keep the best of the past alive, as West counsels, we have tried to capture a vast 90 years of history in a local school community. Established in 1926 as a “pioneer” in modern education, Neighhorhood Middle School has been shaped by the racially restrictive housing covenants of the 1930s and the postwar employment boom in the 1950s. In the 1940s, enrollment peaked and students were bused into NMS, yet by the 1970s parents started putting their children on buses in search of a good education elsewhere—a legacy fueled by agency that continues today. From 1960 to 1970, the student population changed from White to Black, and then from the 1970s on, to increasingly Latino—a reflection of its changing neighborhood and city. The principal in the 1980s who started the honors program was celebrated as a civil rights hero: “She was right out of Brown vs. the Board of Education,” recalled a district board member. Today, equity-minded charter schools are taking center stage in a rebranded South L.A., and NMS is working hard to compete. Neighborhood Middle School has always been on the front lines of the civil rights movement, living the struggle for racial equality, safe streets, economic stability, and good schooling. It is this democratic struggle that defines the best of its past and sets the stage for future action.

Neighborhood urban schools across the country are experiencing similar struggles and many have closed as a result. In 2014, 1,737 public elementary and secondary schools across the nation closed—a 46% increase from 2000 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016). In urban communities, school closures disproportionately affect Black students and students living in poverty (Urban Institute, 2017). In some cities, the problem is acute. Detroit, for example, has closed more than 200 schools since 2004 (Pedroni, 2011) and Chicago closed 50 schools in 2013, the largest district-based set of school closures at one time in U.S. history (Webley, 2013). There are many explanations of why these schools are closing, including the expansion of charter schools. While some argue that the charter movement is improving schooling in urban communities, research evidence on the effectiveness of charters is mixed (Cheng, Hitt, Kisida, & Mills, 2017; Clark, Gleason, Tuttle, & Silverberg, 2015). Research has documented, however, that school closures destabilize local communities and disrupt students’ lives—adding to the many other challenges experienced by students of color living in poverty (Fine, 2012; Green, 2017). An increasing body of research focuses on what communities are doing in response. This case study was designed to inform the expansion of a neighborhood school from grades 6–8 to K–12—to both increase enrollment and provide a hub for needed services and community engagement. We therefore turn back to the three democratic tensions that emerged from our study to articulate lessons for NMS as well as other struggling neighborhood schools.

First, our history of repeated reform attempts in a “failing school” context is common and points to the need for more attention on democratic change processes. Second, the case of NMS documents how the tension between the private drive to get ahead and our collective, democratic spirit is currently playing out in urban communities. And third, our analysis of the local “beautiful struggle” brings to life the democratic tension between critical hope and despair. Each of these tensions suggest implications for reimagining neighborhood urban schools as the centers of their communities.


1. Reform Means Versus Ends

When reform comes from the top, viewed as an end to achieve rather than a process of collective problem-solving, the reform mill tends to preserve the status quo—feeding the notion that reforms do not stick, but instead are ideational objects or banners that cycle in and out (Oakes et al., 2000). The reform history at NMS is a clear case of this churning cycle. Starting with the return to the “Three Rs” in 1940 and including sweeping changes such as court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s, NMS has weathered many changes. Most recently, the Targeted Schools Program in 2003, restructuring in 2004, reconstitution in 2010, the mentor school pairing in 2015, and the partnership with a local university in 2016 were all designed to resuscitate the school as its enrollment plummeted. To date, none of these programs (hopefully with the exception of the most recent) has created the kind of lasting, substantive change that would begin to turn the school’s reputation. Some reforms were reported as positive; for instance, Grace appreciated how the Targeted Schools Program gave the school resources that left the halls clean and shiny and supported her to develop a discipline in her teaching. Others were disastrous, such as the reconstitution that “hurt the school and chased away good people.”

The implications of this reform history moving forward seem clear. To stop the churn, the process of change must receive careful attention by all agents of change. This case study has attempted to set a stage for more mutual and productive change activities at NMS by documenting the school’s reform experiences to date and reflecting on the value of a more inclusive and democratic change process. The actions taken by the partnership took this a step further. In 2015–2016, the design team created six collaborative working groups of school and university partners to develop plans for professional learning and instruction; extended learning and enrichment; staffing, budget, and governance; community engagement and student recruitment; operations and athletics; and data and research. For example, the governance working group reviewed three models for establishing an autonomous school model within the district and chose one that provided the most flexibility to the school. The design team then led a collaborative proposal writing process to become an autonomous school, which involved establishing a mission and vision, processes for professional learning and curriculum development, and a democratic governance structure. By focusing on the means of change—the reform process—school and university partners are actively countering the legacy of top-down mandates and slowly building trust that they are invested for the long haul.

There are many other examples of school reform partnerships trying to get the change process right for all members: teachers, students, parents, community partners, district staff, researchers, and others. As we have explored, the crux of this democratic tension lies in balancing the common press for shared equity outcomes (democratic ends) with the local and particular processes of collective problem-solving (democratic means). Recognizing the varied roles, histories, perspectives, and assets that different change agents bring to the table is also crucial. Teachers, for example, have been traditionally marginalized in planned reform efforts, expected to attend a workshop and then implement a mandated best practice. In response, there are growing reform communities (Evers & Kneyber, 2016; Farris-Berg & Dirkswager, 2012) that recognize the agency and expertise of teachers in creating schools, advising on policy, preparing new teachers, and improving instruction.

2. Public Versus Private Goods

The expanding marketplace of new school options foregrounds public schooling as a private good over which families compete rather than a public good that advances democracy and serves all children equitably. As discussed above, this conception is rooted in the longstanding belief that education is an engine for individual social mobility. Striking the right balance between this social mobility goal and the common good goal is a constant struggle that plays out in policy and public debates. Researchers have also investigated what happens when the two aims collide—how market-based school reform limits public engagement in education (e.g., Cucchiara, Gold, & Simon, 2011).

This public–private tension played out vividly at NMS. Starting with voluntary busing in the 1970s, families started leaving the school in droves, in search of a better education. The individual imperative to get students ahead meant leaving for the extra resources and social capital outside their community rather than advocating for those resources at their own neighborhood school. The explosion of local charter schools reshaped the dynamic; families of middle school students now had 17 other local options in addition to the 70 other district options they chose in 2015. Choosing among 87 different school options created a crowded marketplace, complete with slick brochures and marketing campaigns intent on building waiting lists. To retain their “market share,” schools had to dedicate resources to articulating their competitive edge and launched public relations campaigns that included door-to-door recruitment as well as savvy uses of social media.

In many of the interviews, there was a palpable and inherent tension between the need to compete in the marketplace and the need to serve the community well. Within the context described above, members of the NMS community felt they had to create “something special that no one else has to offer.” While some called for a fresh coat of paint and “an Ivy League kind of spin,” others, such as Ida, focused on the need for essential health and social services as well as enrichment programs for students, “because we need to really nurture our kids more.” Or as Pastor Morrison put it, “feel like we’re a community.” Navigating this tension is a current reality that shapes the reimagining and survival of neighborhood urban schools. Within this context, it seems naïve and nostalgic to appeal to NMS’s legacy as a “swell school” and “one of the best in the community.” NMS needs not to restore its long-ago reputation as a good school, but rather requires a radical reimagining as the cornerstone of collective democratic life, in addition to a mechanism through which individuals gain economic advantage. The school and its university partnership have worked to create the nurturing, community-based school that appeals to the public good, but has also felt compelled to participate in the marketized world of private goods—creating shiny brochures, hanging large partnership banners outside the building, and even creating a radio spot to advertise this public school for the local community. Navigating this tension has meant striving for the public good while succumbing to the demands of the current  private good-oriented public school landscape.

3. Critical Hope Versus Despair

A third tension that defines democratic education focuses on the lived human experience of its participants as prisoners of hope (West, 2001). Duncan-Andrade (2009) offers a compelling view of “critical hope,” which takes three forms: material, Socratic, and audacious. Using the metaphor of growing roses in concrete, Duncan-Andrade (2009) argues that material hope acknowledges that there are always cracks in the concrete; Socratic hope is the courage to endure the pain of bursting through the concrete; and audacious hope is the collective struggle to replace the concrete with a rose garden. Research poignantly documents the despair, stress, and pain experienced by people who face structural inequality, poverty, racism, and violence in their schools and communities (Anyon, 2014; Gorksi, 2015; Howard, 2010; Milner, 2015). Maintaining a critical hope in these circumstances is a core tension of democratic schooling. In our interviews and research, this tension emerged as an important historical narrative.

James captured the tension poignantly as “a beautiful struggle.” He maintained a critical hope by keeping “real and true” and trying “to plant some seeds.” Kevin’s memory of NMS as “very close to Hell” stands in stark contrast to Amani’s reports of NMS as a safe and nurturing community. Gangs, prostitution, and homicides live within a neighborhood of well-kept homes and rising real estate. As James put it, “there’s no one story.” The multiplicity of this community and the power of connecting with others through struggle—resistant capital—continues to motivate NMS community members and educators to push forward with the vision of a prosperous future. The school–university partnership is working to mobilize this resistant capital by engaging local community-based organizations and university partners in the life of the school—as part of the team that helps marshal needed resources to fight the structural inequalities students face. This concerted political will helped the school recruit its inaugural ninth-grade class in 2017, increasing the school’s enrollment for the first time in 17 years.


Moving the beautiful struggle forward requires joining with others to take action in ways that promote democracy, voice, the public aims of schooling, and hope. Neighborhood Middle School’s action to partner with a university and other community-based organizations is aligned with groups across the United States that are fighting for the reinvestment and improvement of public schooling. Organizations such as the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Journey for Justice Alliance call for a community-based focus on schooling. AROS, for example, is fighting to support 10,000 sustainable community schools across the nation.

Our findings suggest that these community organizers and other community school reformers should consider local histories of neighborhood schools and their communities as important reform assets. Reflecting on these histories can help establish a shared understanding of education as a public good, affirm the linked fate of schools and communities, and set the stage for collective problem-solving. Our study also reveals how the current marketplace of school options presents a framing challenge for community school reformers: how to promote community schools as civic hubs while also addressing the private benefits to individual students. Finally, the story of Neighborhood Middle School is an instructive example of how a school community can maintain hope in the face of despair, by viewing the work of schools in the context of the larger political, social, and economic struggle for justice. By grappling with these democratic tensions, we conclude, school reformers and policymakers can counter the dominant policy discourse of failing and turnaround schools to reimagine the promise of neighborhood schools as anchor democratic institutions in urban communities.

As the community school reform movement continues to grow, research on the participation and agency of students, teachers, parents, community members, and partners in these schools will help us understand the value and process of democratic education. More research is needed on the impact of community schools on student, school, and community outcomes (Oakes et al., 2017), especially from the perspective of those living it (Kerr et al., 2016).  The current renaissance of a century-old movement to create schools as social centers provides an ideal research context for studying democratic school reform in action.


We are indebted to the teachers, aides, residents, pastors, and alumni for their candor, insight, and critical hope, but also recognize that we have only captured a small slice of lived history in a community that has witnessed extraordinary social change and conditions. We would also like to thank Mike Rose for his comments on an earlier version of this paper, as well as two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback and critique.


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In this semistructured interview protocol, the following questions will serve as a guide.

Part One: Participant’s Relationship to and Memory of the School 


What is/has been your relationship to this school?


How long have you had a connection to Neighborhood MS? Can you tell me about the first time you came to the school? What do you remember it being like then? How have your connections to Neighborhood changed over time? 


Can you tell me about an especially memorable, important, or critical incident that frames your understanding of the school?


The school opened almost a century ago and has seen many changes. How would you describe how the school and community have changed over time?

Part Two: The Relationship between Schools and Communities 


What role do you think local communities should play in public schools? Prompts: Is it important for parents and other community members to engage with the school? Why or why not? How should they engage or participate?


Do you think it’s important for children to attend a school in their neighborhood? Why or why not? 


Do you think it’s important that schools offer services beyond education (e.g., health and social services)? Why or why not? What services are most important? 

Part Three: The Current School Choice Context 


The enrollment at Neighborhood MS has dropped over the past few years and families have chosen to send their children to charters, magnets, and other schools. Why do you think this has happened? Did you make this choice? Why or why not? 


What do you know about the other school options for students in this neighborhood? What is your knowledge based on (e.g., information, communication, flyers, websites, etc.)? 


Can you describe the current reputation of Neighborhood MS in comparison to other school choices?


What do you think Neighborhood MS needs to do to make parents and students feel like it’s the right place for their families to learn? What would it take for parents in the neighborhood to trust the school? What does it mean to be a safe school? 


 [A university] is partnering with Neighborhood MS to expand the grades to serve students K–12. Do you think this is a good idea? Why or why not?


Do adults and organizations in this community have a responsibility for improving Neighborhood MS? Why or why not?


How do you envision the future of Neighborhood MS? What do you think is going to happen to the school in the next few years? What should happen?


Interviewer: Do you feel like the level of community involvement is different now than it has been in the past?

Participant: Um, I don’t think—I haven’t seen the community being involved in this school whatsoever (Community Uninvolved). I think it’s even lower. We used to have more programs (Loss of Programming). Los Angeles Teen Mentoring, where we used to recruit. I worked for them, people would come back and mentor here. They wanted to give back. We don’t have those kind of programs here anymore (Loss of Programming). Because of the lower [participation]—we were the first school and then, you know, they still have it but teachers didn’t do it, students’ enrollment didn’t do it, and so it’s losing money so we don’t have, and the support, it’s always been quote unquote a historically bad school or bad element, so you know, 20 years ago maybe you’d try to get bused outside of the area and go to different schools. You know, the Valley schools or something like that (Buses). That was big when they were busing outside, so people would—you know, only the ones who had to come here who lived in the area (Dumping Ground), and then you have the influx of gangs, [the neighborhood nearby] had at one time the highest murder rate in the county, so you’re dealing with all that, and these kids have seen that. So they just are creatures of their environment, what they’ve seen. They’ve seen a lot (Dangerous Community). A lot more than kids in other areas, you know. And then parenting, so you know we don’t see enough parents at back-to-school nights or open house or when [university partner] does something for the community (Want Parents Involved). We don’t have a lot of people there, they just don’t, they aren’t that involved. Maybe they don’t know how to be involved in their kids’ education. I know I go to all the back-to-school nights when, me or my wife or both of us. We participate. We won’t go the whole semester without getting a report card and then, “I haven’t gotten one.” We wanna see the grades, we go and talk to the teachers. Whereas maybe with the socioeconomics or the education of the parents and just the other societal issues that take place, you just don’t have a lot of parent involvement historically (Impact of Social Conditions on School Outcomes).

Interviewer: Do you think it’s important that kids in this neighborhood go to this school?

Participant: [10 second pause] Okay, I said earlier I wouldn’t send my own son to this school because of various reasons, and I’m a teacher here. So until the school improves, where they get that core group of teachers that’s gonna be invested (Committed Staff), until we get those rigorous elective courses like they have at other schools that are high performing (Diverse Class Options) (Would Stay if Curriculum More Rigorous), then it’s gonna be hard to get that where they have, you know, the charters where they would make the kids wear uniforms (Uniforms). And when they don’t, you know, they take them and so, you know, it’s gonna be hard to, you know, hopefully [university partner] can bring them back and bring in the, you know, but I just think it’s gonna be hard.


For the full codebook, please contact the authors. Here, find the section for the first democratic tension. Codes to the left represent the conceptual parent codes, while those farther right represent the InVivo codes. Count to the far right is aggregated for each level.

Parent/Theoretical Codes, InVivo Codes


Reform Ends vs. Means



Top-down from district




Funding policies





Funding inequity





Funding cuts (+ 3 subcodes, e.g., Loss of programming, Cuts to arts, Teachers provide $$)





“Get nothing out”




District policies hamstring progress




Attendance boundaries




Closing of neighborhood schools




Feel threat of total takeover




Must place teachers




District academic priorities




Challenge of special ed implementation




District is structured



Role of school leadership




Current leadership




Leadership turnover




Principal tried to hold onto teacher




Don’t walk the walk



Decision-making autonomy and authority




Parents feeling shut out





Hard for working parents to volunteer





Working parents




Distrust of being told what one’s options are




Key in involving community




Don’t hear teacher voice




Parents involved in decision-making




Difference of opinion/planning voices




Collective vision



Cycle of reform efforts




Span school?





Span school bad





Span school = stability




Testing regimes




Slow implementation of new programs












Ten Schools Program





Professional culture



Reform: too much responsibility on community


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 2, 2020, p. 1-46
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23065, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:24:23 PM

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About the Author
  • Karen Hunter Quartz
    University of California Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    KAREN HUNTER QUARTZ directs the UCLA Center for Community Schooling and is a faculty member in the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. Her research, teaching, and service focus on community school development, teacher autonomy and retention, and educational reform. Recent publications include “Framing, Supporting, and Tracking College-For-All Reform: A Local Case of Public Scholarship,” forthcoming in the High School Journal; and “University-Partnered New School Designs: Fertile Ground for Research–Practice Partnerships,” in Educational Researcher.
  • Rebecca Cooper Geller
    University of California Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA C. GELLER is a doctoral candidate in Urban Schooling at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Her research focuses on social studies education, culturally relevant teaching, civic and political education, and critical race theory. Recent publications include a review of The Fight for America’s Schools: Grassroots Organizing in Education, with K. H. Quartz, in Teachers College Record; and “Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools,” a report with J. Rogers, M. Franke, and colleagues from UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access.
  • Shanté Stuart McQueen
    University of Pittsburgh
    E-mail Author
    SHANTÉ STUART MCQUEEN is a postdoctoral associate at the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh where she is exploring restorative justice programming, ethnocentric parenting practices, and community school partnerships. Her research includes school transformation in urban communities, community schools, and more specifically classroom-level integration of school–community and school–university partnerships. Recent publications include Becoming a Community School: Teacher Perspectives Through the Transition from Traditional Public to Public Community School (dissertation) and “School-University Partnerships: Reflections from a Teacher-Researcher,” in Southern California Professional Development School.
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