By Paul Horton.

An important new study, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood by Karl Alexander, Doris Entwisle, and Linda Olson, casts doubt on the current policy push to starve neighborhood public schools and fund charter schools that are not connected to supportive communities.

The 2014 Russell Sage Foundation study emphasizes that it does take a village to raise kids, and to the extent that schools are not a part of a supportive web of extended families, mentorship opportunities, institutions that provide constructive activities, health care, child support, and access to entry level and skilled jobs through community networking, they can not deliver success to disadvantaged urban youth.

The longitudinal study of Baltimore black and white students who live in segregated disadvantaged neighborhoods concludes that the life chances of white students who grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods are significantly greater because all or more of the community characteristics mentioned above are more present in white working class communities where two parent households are more common.

“What ultimately determines well-being in adulthood,” according to the study’s authors, is “how young people negotiate the transition to adulthood, which is rooted in resources present all the way back to first grade.” (187)

“We see that children are launched on to stable trajectories very early in life for many reasons. First, the SES [Socio-Economic Status] aligns with that of their neighborhoods, and both trace back to the SES of their parents.” (187)

“Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their performance and goals in life.” (187)

Factors that impact black blue-collar neighborhoods more make it more difficult for these neighborhoods to provide support for “earnings attainment.”

Race continues to play a role when it comes to finding jobs. “The exclusion of blacks from high-skill, high-wage employment is rooted in Jim Crow and resistance to integration and is sustained through tradition, word of mouth network hiring, and employer attitudes.” (183)

Other factors weakening inner city black neighborhoods include, “urban renewal displacement, the scars left behind by the urban riots of the 60s, and residential instability associated with single parent poverty. This confluence of forces has left low-income black neighborhoods weakened, fractured, and more vulnerable to predatory crime.” (183)

The largest disadvantage created by the weakening of urban black working class neighborhoods is a lack of “network ties useful for finding work,” and “when neighborhood residence is used by employers as a screen for applicants, it is low-income African Americans who lose out.”(184) These job networking webs are much better articulated in white working class communities, the authors conclude.

The most important takeaway for education policy makers is that creating job networking opportunities for working class black youth is the paramount factor in creating more promising life paths for underserved black urban youth.

Although the authors of The Long Shadow do not come down on one side of the public vs. charter school debate, they do emphasize that building stronger communities and neighborhoods is the key to building schools that can leverage resources to strengthen schools to help construct more positive job pathways for underserved black urban youth.

At a time when many charters are encouraging the segregation of students living in “hyperpoverty” neighborhoods schools need:

  • to desegregate beyond the selective magnet model
  • to develop quality preschools
  • to create smaller class sizes
  • to create high quality, engaging summer school and after school programs
  • to hire highly qualified, well prepared, well-supported, and committed teachers
  • to develop high standards and strong curricula
  • to support meaningful integration across SES levels
  • to create classroom environments that respect children’s background and builds from their strengths
  • to build an it-takes-a-village mindset that addresses children’s and their parents’ needs (179)

Although the Long Shadow focuses on Baltimore, its results could be nearly replicated in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and Chicago that have seen large scale urban education reform that defunds public schools to fund charters, and in some cases (Cleveland and Milwaukee) vouchers.

In all of these cities, and many more, policy makers have largely given up on meaningful SES integration beyond selective enrollment schools that tend to exclude lower SES students over time. The same can be said for charter schools that dismiss students for various reasons that include discipline, English language acquisition, failure to make good grades, or not being able to overcome learning challenges in a non supportive environment. (

Although some charters succeed in bundling private and corporate donations to provide some wraparound services that are not available in underserved neighborhoods of origin, most charters are strapped financially because they must provide profit margins for their owners and investors. Clearly, the authors of the Long Shadow indicate that we need get back to a serious discussion about integrating schools more effectively across class and racial lines.

Creating charters that distance kids from “neighborhood pathologies” to move them into artificially constructed and segregated communities of high expectations is like putting a finger in the dyke of American poverty.

Although some charters were created as a part of neighborhood initiatives, the national charter movement has become the billionaire’s solution, and it has increasingly become identified with racist assumptions about “neighborhood pathologies.” The billionaire’s solution is the cheap solution; it is a solution that abandons the idea of public responsibility for schools in an alienated neoliberal fog. The authors of the Long Shadow ask us to begin to think differently and to face up to our responsibilities as American citizens of conscience.

The Long Shadow is a must read for education policy makers and their critics.

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio’s West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country’s most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years. 

Baltimore mural photo by Eli Pousson, used with Creative Commons license.


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Mario Ruiz    

    I have almost given up on, one day, reading an article, or a report on the conditions of urban city schools, and find sensible, realistic, achievable recommendations and suggestions for improvement. Sadly, after reading this piece, I still feel the same way. The recommendations for improvement are not different from the sundry list advanced by all other reports, community activists, and researchers. Seriously, there is absolutely nothing new here. Every item on this list is an impossibility, in the present environment, so why list them again. That’s akin to intellectual dishonesty. You know it can’t be done, but you feel the need to engage in wishful thinking. Even the half-hearted, “to build an it-takes-a-village mindset that addresses children’s and their parents’ needs,” is so devoid of meaning as to be be farcical.To build an it-takes-a-village mindset takes a total commitment from the community (which is not there), a total commitment from the political powers, which is not there, a total commitment from the economic sector, which is not there. It is not our responsibility, nor our mission to build a model that addresses the parents’ needs. It is indeed the parents’ responsibility to work with us, in building such model for their children.

  2. g.h.    

    I am in agreement that it takes more than just the classroom teacher to build up our children properly. As I have read many blogs on this issue I have to agree with Mario Ruiz that we need to do more than just create lists. The lists I don’t believe come with argument, but how we carry the wishes out comes with many different ideas.

    Community schools can reach the students and push them towards success. However, for the community not to repeat the problems of yesterday. Parents cannot project their past onto the children and expect a different result.

    “Second, parents’ plans for their children are in place long before high school, and these plans are strong determinants of their performance and goals in life.” (187). How can we change this? I don’t feel we can without changing more than just what a teacher is doing in the classroom. We must start by engaging the community around our schools. This very likely will require enlisting politicians to make changes at their level to bring stability to our communities, or enlisting local business to reinvest in their community.

    In the mean time I agree we can do more at the classroom level to get the most out of our current community to help grow our students. The important place to start is to create a school vision that involves a representation of each stakeholder in the school and community. This will allow the community to be involved from the beginning of a new era. Furthermore, it will not make it a “their job” referring to the school raising their child without their input.

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