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C200: The Kids Are Alright

2011 April 4
by Nathan James

< Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Seattle's Central Distric; photo: Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

In the last two decades, plenty of cities—including Seattle—did what was once considered impossible. They drew legions of well-educated, middle class residents back to the urban core with high-tech jobs, a thriving arts and culture scene, and dramatically lower crime rates. What they didn’t get: children.

Among major cities, Seattle has the second lowest proportion of households with children (next to San Francisco). Seattle may be an extreme case, but cities across the country tend to have fewer school age children than the suburbs.

So what does it matter if modern cities are havens for childless couples, empty-nesters, and single condo-dwellers?

If you care about density, plenty. Two-thirds of Seattle is zoned single-family residential—a proportion that isn’t changing anytime soon. Backyard cottages and transit-oriented development can increase density, but think of the difference keeping families with young children in the city would make (without, I should mention, prompting a NIMBY freak-out).

Seattle Public Schools has taken steps that make it easier for families to choose staying in the city over decamping for the suburbs. First, the district ditched its complicated, confusing assignment plan in favor of a system that guarantees students a space in their neighborhood school. Now, if you know your address, you can predict where your child will go to elementary, middle, and high school.

Second, the district is publishing detailed, annual reports about the performance of each school and providing tailored resources to those that are struggling. The reports show that many schools have a long way to go (especially those south of I-90), but an analysis by UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education also shows that some schools are beating the odds. Take Concord Elementary in South Park. It has roughly the same proportion of low-income students as neighboring schools, but Concord students not only outperform their peers in absolute terms, they are improving faster, as well.

These changes mean that families who are priced out of north end neighborhoods like Wallingford and Ballard—traditionally known for their good schools—have reliable information about strong schools in more affordable parts of the city (February’s median home listing price in South Park: $175,000).

And when families with children choose to stay in Seattle, it reduces growth pressure in the suburbs and creates a denser, more livable city.

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Nathan James lives and works in Seattle.

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