Ariel view of an urban neighborhood
Credit: Martin Sanchez, Unsplash

Community development may narrow the student achievement gap

Thoughtfully developed, accessible communities may boost parent engagement and student outcomes in low-income neighborhoods

February 22, 2019

The debate around education reform often focuses on teacher performance, principal leadership or the dwindling resources of the public school system. But these in-school influences account for only one-third of the gaps in student outcomes. A new study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research suggests that improving the neighborhoods of students and their families may be one of the most important outside influences on student test scores.

“Not enough people are connecting community development and parent supports to educational outcomes,” said study author Carrie Makarewicz, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, College of Architecture and Planning, at the University of Colorado Denver. “Neighborhoods with lower median incomes are consistently without the resources they need. I wanted to examine how factors like a neighborhood’s design, housing and transportation could explain whether parents had enough time and energy to fully support their children’s learning and education.”

The study, Supporting Parent Engagement in Children’s Learning through Neighborhood Development and Improvements to Accessibility, found that community development is equally as important as a parent’s personal income in influencing how much a parent engages with their children. When a family lives in a neighborhood with jobs, grocery stores, parks, accessible transit and housing stability, one could expect student achievement to rise. That’s because it’s easier for parents to connect with other parents, transport children to and from school and take advantage of nearby amenities — all of which affects their children’s educational outcomes.

Makarewicz used interviews, time-use diaries, neighborhood data and participant observation to examine the lives of 70 families of varying income levels from neighborhoods throughout Oakland, Calif., and whose children attended K-12 public schools. The study found that low-income neighborhoods had the fewest resources across the board.

She found that parents from mostly white, high-income neighborhoods had both the personal income and built-in neighborhood supports — like nearby parks, grocery stores, youth activities, libraries, frequent public transportation and other parents they knew and trusted — that afforded the parents time, energy and resources to support their kids. Parents from low-income and less-developed neighborhoods spent their time and money traveling to faraway schools, parks, stores and other low-cost activities, or went without.

The good news is community development research finds that parents with lower incomes and less education can and do engage when they are supported by schools, social welfare programs, public goods and community groups. And some urban-planning projects are already taking up the cause: Purpose Built Communities, a nonprofit, and government efforts like the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods and HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods coordinate school improvement with housing and community development around the U.S. Makarewicz said urban planners can go further by meeting with developers, including people from the neighborhood in decision-making processes, partnering with nonprofits and assessing the availability of resources for families.

But fixing it will take time. Local governments and school districts rarely work together on community issues, and cities have fewer resources to invest in neighborhood improvements.

“In practice, city planners are not encouraged to address school issues, since nearly all school districts operate independently with separately elected governments boards,” says Makarewicz, who is hoping studies like this one will communicate new best practices.

“Officials interested in improving student outcomes haven’t thought to prioritize spending in urban planning because they don’t see the connection to educational outcomes,” says Makarewicz. “If we can make that argument, maybe local and state governments will see the connection between investing in lower-income neighborhoods and improving student outcomes.”

This research was funded in part with grants from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation, University of California, Berkeley and Women’s Transportation Seminar.

Media Relations Contact: Meme Moore,, 303-315-0009