December 15, 2019

It’s the Economy: Who Knew Greenwich, Conn., Was a Model of Equality?

No, Bonilla told me. In Greenwich schools, he said, “they teach ice-skating.” His wife, Veronica Llerena, who works as a housekeeper and a cashier at a Peruvian restaurant, added, “They have everything — music, sports, art, drama.” She and Bonilla, who farmed a small plot in El Ejido in Andalusia, recently left because “in Spain, he has no future,” Bonilla said, pointing at their 4-year-old son, Manuel Jr., who was sleeping in his mother’s arms. In Greenwich, they thought he did.

The Bonillas were sitting with other low-income families in the immaculate Greenwich Head Start building. I had long known that Greenwich — with its grand estates — was ground zero for the 1 percent, but I was surprised to learn that nearly 4 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. “It takes a lot of labor to run those estates,” says Bob Arnold, president of Family Centers, a nonprofit social-service agency there. “They need housekeepers, cooks, landscapers.” I figured that many of those lower-income workers commuted from nearby places like White Plains, N.Y., or Stamford, Conn., where the rents are much cheaper. And many certainly do, but Arnold told me that the families who opt to live just on the Greenwich side of the New York border or in the apartments above the stores on Greenwich Avenue, fit a very specific profile: they pay the costs to have access to the schools that Greenwich’s high property-tax base affords.

What Greenwich doesn’t have is an abundance of affordable housing. Megan Sweeney, a director at Family Centers, explained that information about them is often guarded by family members or close friends. The Bonillas moved to Greenwich only because Veronica’s sister, Mercy Llerena, a manager of a private estate, went there from White Plains after marrying a man in town. Another woman I met, Estella Rozende, an immigrant from Brazil, learned about Greenwich from a family friend who has helped dozens get started there.

The Bonillas and Rozende felt lucky to have children in Greenwich. But historically speaking, researchers haven’t been so sure that it is beneficial to enroll low-income children in wealthier schools. A lot of sociological data, dating to the definitive Coleman Report of 1966, which studied the outcomes of 570,000 students, show that a child’s success in school, more than anything, was determined by her parents’ wealth and education level. So in the decades after the report was issued, attention was lavished on various reforms and integrating schools according to race, not economics.

New research, however, suggests that economic integration may be the answer. Recently, Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, began studying the public-school system of Montgomery County, Md. The county, a suburb of Washington, has one of the most affluent populations in America and an innovative housing authority that allows low-income citizens to rent homes alongside wealthier neighbors at steeply discounted prices. The renters are randomly assigned to different parts of the county; some Montgomery County schools have many poor students, others have almost none. In 2009, Schwartz concluded that students from poor families did much better in predominantly wealthy schools than in predominantly poor ones. On average, the poorer children in wealthier schools cut their achievement gap in half compared with their peers in poorer schools.

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