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K-12 Facilities, Economic Mobility, and Social Capital

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

If poverty - income and wealth inequality - drives most (but certainly not all) disparities we see in educational outcomes, then economic mobility must be a central focus of a systems approach to closing achievement and opportunity gaps for good.

So what gives kids the best chance for upward economic mobility? Raj Chetty’s celebrated Opportunity Insights research identifies four significant variables that increase the likelihood of upward economic mobility: good schools (who would’ve thought?!?), two-parent households, mixed-income neighborhoods, and social capital.

Fayetteville Public Schools already has terrific educators and great schools, and we are constantly working to improve student growth metrics and educational outcomes for all students. This is the only variable within our direct control. However, our school district and community can positively influence some of the other variables by coordinating our planning and implementation efforts more strategically with key community partners.

Household dynamics are nearly impossible to control, although they are highly correlated with poverty. Fayetteville Public Schools - particularly our teachers, social workers, administrators, counselors, and other staff - partner with dozens of local agencies to support families.

Mixed-income neighborhoods require subsidies and partnerships. These partnerships must be led by the private sector, local government, and philanthropy. Fayetteville Public Schools can play an important supporting role in this work.

What role can school districts play in partnerships to support mixed-income neighborhoods?

  • We can invest in new/renovated facilities and highly sought-after programs within higher-poverty neighborhoods. Since we know that school facilities investments often spark and accelerate private sector development, investing in facilities in lower-income areas offers the benefits of proximity to lower-income families while prompting new market-rate development, helping to balance our school zones over time. The City of Fayetteville, the NWA Council’s Workforce Housing Center, and the private sector (for-profit and non-profit developers) have tools to help ensure that neighborhoods continue to offer a variety of housing options at varying price points over time by ensuring a portion of housing units have long-term affordability requirements.

  • FPS could inventory our excess land as a part of our Facilities Master Planning process to consider allowing non-profit developers and other partners to build mixed-income and affordable housing on land currently owned by the district. It could be targeted to teachers, at-risk families, or the general public. This housing would not be built by the district - we would sell, or ground lease our excess land to a non-profit or for-profit developer. On-site housing for at-risk families would significantly improve attendance and reduce barriers to parent engagement, and on-site housing for teachers would equate to a significant raise due to reduced housing and transportation costs.

  • If we determine that we own a significant amount of excess land at a particular location, I would propose contracting with a third party to create a master plan for the site. By minimizing the footprint of our K-12 facility, we could open up space for on-site supportive services operated by third parties, such as private pre-k, mental health, and health care services. I envision schools as neighborhood hubs surrounded by mixed-income housing and supportive services. This would put land back on the property tax rolls and allow the construction of buildings and services that otherwise would not exist, which would create significant recurring property tax revenue for the school district that could be used to support students and staff. It would also increase the number of students who can walk and bike to school while adding convenient supportive services. This approach maximizes the potential for our school facilities to act as social infrastructure, bringing children and families together to build relationships, networks, and community.

Where to begin?

I would like to see FPS work with the City of Fayetteville to identify shared goals and shared values, such as more balanced school zones, mixed-income neighborhoods, reduced concentration of poverty, and efficient use of existing infrastructure, and then work together with the private sector to identify barriers and opportunities to achieving those goals.

What role can school districts play to encourage the development of social capital?

Many of us are not familiar with the term social capital, but we all understand the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know."

While it has historically been hard to measure, new research from Chetty says that “social capital is the most significantly correlated variable for economic mobility.” Using Facebook data, he has mapped every high school and neighborhood in the US to understand where relationships are being formed across socioeconomic lines. Specifically, kids who grow up in families with incomes in the 25th percentile (in other words, 75% of families have higher incomes) are most likely to show positive economic mobility at age 35 if they have a significant number of higher-income friends and connections.

What can school districts do to impact social capital, especially for lower-income families?

We already work on this through Family Connection Nights, elementary classroom seating arrangements, clubs, sports, and enrichment programs. We have a phenomenal AVID program, a cohort group model that helps first-generation students and other college-bound students build study habits, note-taking skills, college readiness, and - most importantly - relationships with one another. This program has grown from 16 participants to over 400 in the 5 years it’s been offered. Our community is eager for opportunities to connect with one another and build relationships - let’s facilitate this every way we can.

Balancing school zones is a huge opportunity. Unbalanced school zones strain teachers and staff in higher-poverty schools and reduce opportunities for higher-income students to build cultural awareness and empathy. While we do redraw attendance zone boundaries from time to time, there is only so much we can do to balance our school zones when our community is economically segregated. Our bigger lever of power is our facilities investments and the strategies outlined above.

Internships, apprenticeships, and satellite facilities co-located with community partners (such as the Brightwater culinary program housed at the Fayetteville Public Library) can help build networking skills and social networks for students within the business community. Over the next 5 years, I hope we can grow the Brightwater program and take a close look at replicating it in other program areas, such as Health Care, Skilled Trades, Computer Science, and Engineering.

Another specific opportunity for Fayetteville Public Schools is to thoughtfully implement the new community service requirement in the LEARNS Act to help high school students build their social networks within the community.

I know that none of this is easy or simple. As I’ve attended family events at Washington Elementary this year, I’ve noticed that I tend to gravitate towards socializing with parents I already know - parents who tend to be in an economic position similar to our family. I myself have work to do to build deeper relationships with individuals of different races and different income levels. Building these relationships requires intentional program design. One successful model I’m aware of brings preschool families together in play groups - a program called Parenting Communities in Northern Michigan, where I grew up.

Building and maintaining schools in mixed-income neighborhoods where kids can walk and bike to school could help build social capital as parents meet and mingle on their way to and from school.

Designing facilities to create welcoming indoor and outdoor gathering spaces and programming those spaces to intentionally bring a variety of families together is something we already do and can expand on.

Working with community partners to utilize school facilities as neighborhood hubs that bring families together during the evenings, weekends, and summers is the cornerstone of the Community Schools model, which I would love to see Fayetteville Public Schools embrace as a core value.

I know that only a couple of these ideas are new. I’m far from an expert.

Many of these ideas are already implemented in different forms across Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas. But there is one thing I know to be true - achieving educational equity through the closure of opportunity gaps and other disparities will require a set of approaches that feature collaboration across systems and deep coordination between leaders of systems. Complex problems require collaborative solutions.

What are your thoughts on how to build social capital in schools? Comment on our Facebook post, on the blog here, or email me at

Want to learn more about social capital and economic mobility? Check out this overview of Raj Chetty’s research that maps “economic connectedness” - a core driver of economic mobility - for every high school, City, County, and neighborhood in the United States:

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