By Henry Louis Taylor Jr.
The King Center Charter School’s quest to move to former School 71 is as much about neighborhood development as it is about school relocation. In this context, the decision to relocate is an act of disinvestment, which betrays the King Urban Life Center dream of turning this neighborhood into a great place to raise a family.
Schools anchor neighborhoods, cultivate community identity and increase return on public investment. This was the vision of the city, state and all who invested millions to save St. Mary of Sorrows from demolition in 1986. Their dream was informed by a belief that you cannot have strong schools without strong neighborhoods and you cannot have strong neighborhoods without strong schools. Therefore, school reform and neighborhood development proceed in tandem in this community.
The King Center’s dream was to save the church and neighborhood in which it was located. The center connected its revitalization efforts to the larger quest of regenerating the greater MLK Park community by joining the “Better Schools, Better Neighborhoods” collaborative. The King Center is the engine driving the redevelopment of its neighborhood, which is anchored by school reform. It has transformed the block between Rich and Guilford, purchased properties and assisted with the demolition of derelict properties.
Yet Keith Frome, the charter school’s director, says, “the move is a logical outgrowth of our school’s and students’ success.” The Buffalo experience rebuts this statement. Elmwood Franklin, Frome’s last school, has remained in its neighborhood and expanded in place. He serves on the board of trustees of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, which has repeatedly expanded on its site. There are many examples of other Buffalo schools following suit.
The King Urban Life Center understands the school’s desire to expand, and has repeatedly offered to finance expansion on its current site, enabling the school to focus on education rather than brick-and-mortar issues.
This move is a bad education decision. Schools, including charters, should be institutional anchors engaged in the neighborhood development process. By showing the students how to use the lessons learned in the classroom to make the neighborhood in which the school is located a better place, the children are taught a powerful lesson about the role of education in contemporary society. This will bolster their self-esteem and encourage them to stay in school. On the other hand, the disinvestment strategy teaches the children to “escape” their neighborhoods rather than change them.
For all these reasons, the King Center Charter School should expand on its existing site.
Henry Louis Taylor Jr. is director of the University at Buffalo Center for Urban Studies and a member of the King Urban Life Center board of directors.