A generation ago, many children in New York City’s Bronx borough were languishing in underperforming schools and saddled with early life challenges that too often carry into adulthood. Informed by a growing body of research and buoyed by the area’s can-do spirit, community leaders embarked on an ambitious plan to right this wrong.
Their meticulous work came to fruition two years ago with the New Settlement Community Campus, home to an elementary school, a combined middle and high school, a special-education program, and a community center. This oasis is a testament to how a healthy living environment can pave the way for better education outcomes.
The 172,000-square-foot (16,000 sq m) campus houses health clinics run by a local hospital, outdoor play spaces, a pool, a dance studio (with a dance company in residence), a roof terrace, and a cooking classroom. Much of the campus stays open in the late afternoon and evening for after-school enrichment for the students, as does the community center, which anyone in the neighborhood can use.
New Settlement was built after years of planning by community leaders and partners, including the Settlement Housing Fund, which creates and sustains high-quality, affordable housing. When community leaders began reimagining the area more than two decades ago, the neighborhood had been devastated by fires and was abandoned, says Jack Doyle, executive director of New Settlement Apartments.
From the beginning, campus planners made sure that parents in the neighborhood were involved—something they knew would be critical to the project’s success. Doyle said he wanted to let the parents know that 83 percent of the children in a neighborhood K–5 school could not read, but most of the parents did not even understand the concept of “percent.” “So we created a flyer with 83 kids holding signs that said ‘I can’t read at grade level,’ and that got parents’ attention,” he says.
The school is in the early stages of collecting data on student performance, but Alexa Sewell, the Settlement Housing Fund’s chief executive officer, says the value of locating schools near stable housing is already clear.
“Our families are in safe housing and paying under 30 percent of their income toward rent, so there’s a stability that contributes to stable and sound learning,” she says. Sewell also notes that the fund receives regular requests from education and housing experts around the country who want to visit the school—something she hopes to see more of in the coming years in order to share New Settlement’s approach.
Doyle says New Settlement’s successes showcase how dedicated, passionate leadership can transform new schools. “I think the problem in poor-performing schools is poor-performing adults who are failing the kids,” he says.
Maya Brennan, vice president of the ULI Terwilliger Center for Housing, is managing editor of the How Housing Matters website. She engages in research and outreach to facilitate a broad range of housing options in thriving communities.