This essay, written by Graceful Solutions President Bill Wilson, first appeared in the Tallahassee Democrat on December 22, 2017.
It is well established that most crime is committed by people who are desperate. Financially desperate, emotionally desperate, or just plain desperate. It is also well established that most of that crime is committed by people with limited educational success. What is not as well-known is the link between the unstable nature of a families’ housing and the low achievement of the children in that household in school.
I served for eight years on the Leon County School Board. In looking at the data we found that there was considerable difference in the performance of children who were in a given school for three years or more, and children that changed schools frequently. School stability resulted in better student outcomes.
The families were moving for various reasons but mostly as a result of financial issues. They were not able to make their rent payment at apartment A so they moved to apartment B which happened to be in another school zone. Move the kids. There was a dispute with a spouse or girl/boyfriend, mostly about money or the lack of it. Find a new home, move the kids.
This was most prevalent in several schools on the south side of Tallahassee. The “fix” was to allow students in these schools to remain in the same school regardless of where they moved in a new multi-school zone. We provided transportation between the schools to facilitate this stability.
A lot has changed since then in the school system, in terms of student assignments and choices, but the underlying issues are still the same. Where there is housing instability, the children’s education suffers. When the children’s education suffers, their potential for becoming a statistic in the criminal justice system in greatly increased.
And while there is greater choice in the school system today that choice is only available to families that are able to transport their student to the new school. Therefore, choice is mostly available to the families with more resources and underperforming schools end up with more and more students from disadvantaged families.
Both Sheriff O’Neil and Chief DeLeo have talked about dealing with the underlying reason people commit crime as well as dealing with the people currently committing the crimes. There has been a lot of talk about the part that education and jobs play in that longer range plan. People with better education get better jobs and are not as likely to commit crimes. Stable housing is also a leg on that stool.
I am clear this is a long range answer to a systemic problem but we need to be looking at dealing with the systemic issues in addition to trying to police our community out of the current crisis.
The other piece of this puzzle is the geography of our town. We still have a railroad track that runs through town and still provides a deep divide. We need to do more to build the bridges that will cross those tracks. The big question of course is: How do we redevelop the South Side of Tallahassee to attract more people that are higher on the income scale while at the same time developing strategies to create truly economically diverse neighborhoods north of the tracks?
The research is clear in terms of the success of low income families’ future success. When communities establish more economically integrated neighborhoods, the NIMBs (Not In My Backyard) come out in force. The research also shows that economic integration does not have a detrimental impact on the overall neighborhood. When families are able to live in economically integrated neighborhoods with access to improved amenities and better schools, their children do better and the whole family becomes more successful. The common phrase: All boats rise.
The plans for the redevelopment of the Orange Avenue apartment complex owned by the Tallahassee Housing Authority, and the overall conceptual plan for the Orange Avenue corridor, is a vision for how we can make a difference on the south side to attract a more economically diverse population to this area. Implementation of that plan will take years, a lot of money and strong political will. While we work on that, we also need to develop strategies for economic diversification on the north side of the tracks. That will probably take more political will but it can make a big difference for a lot of families a lot sooner.