Sandie Villanueva could have lived a very different life.
Growing up in Rampart, a historically high-crime district west of downtown, she wasn't sure college was part of her plans. Her parents hadn't gone, after all. But when a middle school teacher urged her to attend a magnet high school in the San Fernando Valley, Ms. Villanueva – with her parents’ support – jumped at the chance.
The decision, she says, was among the best she has ever made. The students at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School were mostly middle class, and almost all were on track for college.
“I was in an environment where every student was focused,” says Villanueva, who became the first member of her family to earn a bachelor's degree and now works as a development associate at a local nonprofit. She plans to enter law school in the next few years. “I think my life trajectory would have been really different if I’d gone to school in my neighborhood,” she says.
But Villanueva’s case – where a young person connects with peers from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds – is more than ever an exception to the rule.
New research out of the University of Southern California has found that between 1999 and 2010, income inequality in the United States has increased most among families with children, especially public school families.
The widening income gap in that demographic is the top driver of economic segregation in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas, according to the study – in part because wealthier families are flocking to school districts and neighborhoods with more and better educational services, leaving poorer and even middle-income families behind.
“Most parents want to do right by their kids, and one way they can do that is to try to live somewhere with better school options,” says Ann Owens, the study’s author and an associate professor at USC’s sociology department. “But as income inequality has increased, higher-income parents have more resources to live where they want to live, while those with lower incomes have less.”
While less pernicious than the racism that led to segregated schools and the “white flight” of the 1970s, the findings lead to a troubling conclusion: that children face greater and growing stratification in neighborhood settings than the whole population of residents. The trend, writes Professor Owens, “has implications for growing inequalities in their future outcomes,” and could propel a cycle of inequality and isolation for children at all levels of the income spectrum.
“Both [neighborhoods and schools] have been proven to be really important contexts for kids,” Owens says. “Research has shown that school poverty is a big contributor to future income gaps. I think that the body of evidence has really converged that integration is key.”
'A parenting arms race'
Among the reasons richer families with children have begun to pull away – literally and figuratively – from their lower-income counterparts is the rise of a culture of parenting that places more priority than ever on children’s school performance, Owens says. As of 2013, only 1 percent of the nation’s 26 million sixth through 12th graders had parents who did not expect them to earn a high school diploma, according to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.
By contrast, 64 percent had parents who expected them to finish college; of those, 36 percent were expected to go to graduate school.
“People are spending more on kids, [and] are very anxious about their kids getting ahead,” Owens says. “It’s a parenting arms race.”
All those private music lessons, test prep, coding classes, and Mandarin can cost hundreds of dollars a month – not a line item in lower-income family budget. The effect can be to crowd out otherwise bright young children from working class or poor families who don't have those advantages.
“Now, your family income matters more than your own abilities in terms of whether you complete college," said Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, to US News and World Report. "Smart poor kids are less likely to graduate from college now than dumb rich kids. That's not because of the schools, that's because of all the advantages that are available to rich kids."
And research shows that children from underserved communities struggle to shake off the negative impact of their ZIP codes in other aspects of their lives. They are more likely to get involved in or become victims of crime or violence, and less likely to perform well in school, earn a degree, or make a salary that rivals their more affluent peers.
“Oftentimes in low-income communities, the very programs and classes that help kids to stay inspired and stay on track academically are minimized or watered down or canceled altogether,” says Tony Brown, executive director of Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA), a nonprofit in the Rampart district that runs after-school programs for underserved youth – and where Villanueva now works.
“But I go across the street to wealthier neighborhoods, and even in public school systems, parents can supplement the after-school provision of arts and STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math],” Mr. Brown says. “So there’s the gap that never gets closed.”
Lessons in empathy
There also are societal costs to having children never play or learn with others who live differently than they do.
Children in segregated environments “miss out on compassion, on truly understanding what the world is like,” says Billy Eddy, a television writer who takes his third-grade son and first-grade daughter to Citizens of the World Charter School, which brings together students of all races and incomes. “My son and daughter have friends whose houses are big and friends whose houses are small. They see the great things in the houses and don’t focus on the material things.”
“In L.A.,” he notes, “that’s a bit rare.”
As the US becomes more diverse, a child’s ability to empathize with others becomes an increasingly crucial skill, says Mark Kleger-Heine, executive director of CWC, which has campuses in Los Angeles and New York.
CWC, he says, prides itself on “diversity by design.” Some 22 percent of the students across its five campuses are African American and 28 percent are Latino, Mr. Kleger-Heine says. About half qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program. Households range from those in transitional housing to those where parents are well-known in the entertainment industry.
“The perspectives and opinions of children vary greatly depending on their home life,” adds Ramona Patrick, principal at CWC’s campus in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “When kids of different backgrounds talk to each other, they automatically understand that not everyone is the same as you. That’s really important.”
New models of education
To Owens, who authored the USC study released Wednesday, CWC embodies the kind of educational model she recommends based on her findings.
“Policymakers,” she writes, “need to consider new ideas in breaking the link between neighborhood residence and school attendance to thwart the increasing pace of segregation between neighborhoods, schools, and school districts among families with children.”
Meanwhile, where schools themselves don’t provide racial and economic diversity, after-school programs such as HOLA step in and offer free courses in music, the arts, and academics.
Villanueva, the Rampart native, credits her time with the organization’s high school program for helping her get into Loyola Marymount University, the private Catholic school where she earned her political science degree. She also says the experience, combined with her decision to go to high school outside her neighborhood, built her confidence and helped her realize her potential.
“When you’re in an environment where you only see one thing, you don’t know what’s out there, that there are these possibilities,” Villanueva says. “That’s very important. Everyone needs to be included.”