Nationwide, low-income families are routinely excluded from schools and neighborhoods that would offer their families stability, enrichment, and a wealth of opportunities. Thankfully, across the country, there are also organizations and districts working together through housing and school partnerships to redress this legacy of disparate outcomes and unequal opportunity for low-income students and students of color. One such organization, Urban Strategies, Inc. (USI)—a member of The Century Foundation’s Bridges Collaborative—has been working for decades to advance integration in high-poverty schools and the neighborhoods they serve. USI’s recent success with their project in Tulsa, Oklahoma not only has improved prospects for students and families there, but also serves as a model that has implications for public policy.

The USI Approach

Founded in 1978, Urban Strategies, Inc. has risen to be a leading national nonprofit organization with extensive experience in the design and implementation of place-based human capital development strategies. Its human capital development strategies stem from a foundation of ensuring housing stability for families, coupled with resources that boost families’ ability to thrive through USI’s other key pillars of service: community engagement, economic mobility, health, and education. In addition, USI targets both individual and structural factors that contribute to disparities in these core areas. Weaved through its pillars of service is also a consistent focus on racial equity, multi-sectoral collaboration, adaptive leadership, data, and results. With a mission that “all children and families will be stable and thriving,” USI supports more than 30,000 families with low to moderate income in forty-one cities and two U.S. territories, and serves as the “people lead” on nineteen Choice Neighborhoods implementation initiatives, as funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

USI recognizes the legacy of systemic racism and oppression that has long created barriers to success for the families it serves. In particular, decades-old housing policies have had a lasting effect in the neighborhoods where USI works. The laws and policy decisions passed by local, state, and federal governments in the past—and upheld today—led to the creation of officially segregated public housing and the demolition of previously integrated neighborhoods. Additionally, the segregation of metropolitan areas today and the creation of low-opportunity neighborhoods continues to lead to inequity and a lack of possibility for upward mobility.

The communities where USI works have a high concentration of poverty, and many of their schools are considered to be poorly performing, according to public school review websites; they are also typically not socioeconomically and racially diverse schools, tending to serve mostly low-income students of color.

In these communities, USI utilizes a community engagement approach that prioritizes continued connectivity with families before, during, and after community revitalization. To ensure meaningful input and participation, USI fully engages community stakeholders throughout the design and implementation process for all initiatives. They organize community meetings and design workshops during convenient hours for residents and provide translation services and transportation to maximize access and participation. Additionally, USI uses feedback from small group discussions, focus groups, and resident idea presentations to shape the vision of all of its initiatives. Through this community engagement approach, USI has developed targeted strategies to improve outcomes for children and families. USI also develops multisectoral service provider networks (SPNs) that consist of high-capacity partners to help accelerate results. The SPNs function as a professional learning community and use results-based methodologies to continually review outcomes, identify and address gaps in needed services, share lessons learned, and to coordinate service linkages for families and children in the areas of health, education, and economic mobility. Driven by the conviction that community-based services must support the entire family unit, the model applies a two-generation approach that ensures able-bodied adults receive education and work support, and that parents have adequate tools to fully help their children to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.

Along with planning and supporting communities and families, USI also leverages funding opportunities to build sustainability plans for communities to thrive long after their redevelopment. This sustainability model showcases the best of resident-led community redevelopment that a neighborhood elevates and supports. As their work progresses, communities phase from planning to redevelopment to sustainable and thriving communities for children and families.

Historical Housing Segregation in Tulsa

A thorough understanding of contemporary school and housing segregation patterns that USI tasked itself with redressing in Tulsa is incomplete without an understanding of the historical forces that shaped them, particularly around race, racism, and segregation. Historically, Native Americans were one of the first disenfranchised ethnic groups in Tulsa, having been forced to surrender their lands east of the Mississippi to the federal government in 1836 in exchange for land in the Tulsa area. This forced migration also marked the arrival of some of the first Black people in Tulsa, as the exodus included Native Americans and freedmen, former slaves who gained tribal membership through marriage, and slaves owned by tribal members. In the decades following the Civil War and into the early 1900s, Black migration to Tulsa continued to increase, but due to forced segregation, there were few places for Black Tulsans to live. However, through the resilient efforts of the community, they were able to create a growing haven of stability in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, which came to be called “The Black Wall Street.” This thriving community, which by 1921 included 191 businesses, two schools, a library, and a hospital, was the realized efforts of many Black Tulsans, built on their labor and sacrifices over decades. Sadly, this flourishing Black community in Tulsa was devastatingly demolished in less than a day during the Tulsa Race Riot, a brutal attack by white Tulsans that resulted in the death of an estimated 300 people, property loss, and economic devastation. The legacy of the massacre—of what once stood, and of what was never given the chance to be built—remains, and is still deeply felt within the community.

Prior to the massacre, the Greenwood District had its own vibrant economy, in which the average dollar changed hands 36 to 100 times before leaving the community. In the year prior to the massacre, there was a 30 percent home ownership rate among Black Tulsans. Researchers estimate that among male-led households, the homeownership rate dropped by 4.2 percentage points in the aftermath of the massacre. Additionally, through redlining policies that started in 1933, 35 percent of Tulsa—including parts of the Greenwood District—was categorized as hazardous by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, denying Black residents the ability to take out mortgages and robbing families of opportunities to build wealth. (More recently, a 2018 analysis of data available under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act revealed that this practice survives to this day, in another form, as Black Tulsans were 2.4 times more likely to be denied a mortgage application than white individuals in Tulsa.)

This historic mid-century disinvestment in Black Tulsa had catastrophic effects on ownership. By the 1970’s, according to the Human Rights Watch, urban renewal policies had wiped out over 1,000 homes and businesses in Tulsa, many of which were in Greenwood. As a result, Black Tulsans were displaced to North, East, and West Tulsa, with very few moving south to the more affluent area. As of 2019, approximately half of all Black people in Tulsa lived in North Tulsa, with a dividing line at Interstate 244.

It is this history of instances of terror and discrimination that resulted in pockets of Black communities living throughout Tulsa—a history that USI is working to address.

USI in Tulsa

In Tulsa, USI has worked collaboratively with the Housing Authority of the City of Tulsa, Tulsa Public Schools, and a host of high-performing community partners since 2017. The work has consisted of addressing a range of housing, neighborhood, and resource gaps faced by over 800 families across three housing complexes: River West (372 families, in 2018), Comanche Park (133 families, in 2022), and Country Club (326 families, in 2022).

In these communities, USI has supported integration in a number of ways, including the use of poverty reduction and de-concentration strategies via multi-sectoral partnerships. Additionally, USI has provided trauma-informed family support ensuring housing stability, relocation to neighborhoods of opportunity, and mobility counseling; integrated student services; mixed-income housing opportunities; and economic empowerment support to raise income levels. In the River West housing community, nearly 400 families have been linked to resources to meet their unique social, emotional, and economic needs with assistance from a family support specialist to help navigate resource access.

The Tulsa Housing Authority (THA) has begun to replace severely distressed housing units with high-quality mixed-income apartments. As its partner, USI is providing trauma-informed counseling to help inform families’ housing choices and mitigate barriers. Though community revitalization is not yet complete, it is well on its way, with more than ninety families having made the choice to move back into the revitalized mixed income development. USI also promotes integration by helping to increase families’ earning power. Since 2018, families’ average earned income has increased from $14,710 to $22,485 through the creation and implementation of the “No Wrong Door” innovative economic mobility intervention designed to address root causes of economic instability. USI worked in collaboration with community partners on this initiative.

As part of this work, USI has also partnered with Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) to offer integrated support services to families and assistance with making informed school choices—a critical service, since Tulsa had a history of extreme racial segregation and inequitable outcomes in its school system. In 1974, for example, when racial segregation in education was examined in some of America’s public schools, the dissimilarity index—where a score of 0 represents complete integration and a score of 100 represents complete segregation— was 79 on average, yet Tulsa had a dissimilarity index of 97, meaning near-complete segregation.

One school in the revitalized neighborhood that USI has been working closely with is Eugene Field Elementary (EFE). In 2016–17, 42 percent of EFE students were African American, making its student body significantly different from other Tulsa schools (which were 23.5 percent African American, on average) and other Oklahoma schools (which were typically 9.1 percent African American). And although African American students comprised the largest segment of EFE’s student body, they had the lowest levels of achievement in math and English Language Arts proficiency out of five ethnic groups represented at the school. Nearly all students that lived in the public housing sites attended EFE—91 percent (129) of students in K–5 and 48 percent of children aged 6–12—comprising 33 percent of the school’s student body.

In the coming years, families that live in the revitalized community are likely to enroll their children at EFE because of its proximity to the neighborhood. Yet proximity alone will not be the deciding factor affecting a families’ decision to move back and enroll their child in the school. Therefore, TPS took bold steps to transition EFE to a Montessori model in order to attract new families and retain families in the neighborhood through their education programming. USI helped with staffing and other integrated student supports, while TPS provided Montessori enhancements to its classrooms and equipment and revisited some of its policy decisions. Now, all students that reside within the community have access to a Montessori education, and to further advance racial and economic integration, space will be available to families that live outside of the neighborhood boundaries. The Montessori concept has a certain cachet, and having this opportunity available to parents researching schools in the area will spur school integration in tandem with overall neighborhood revitalization.

Policy Implications

Whether it’s always true or not, society often touts education as “the great equalizer,” particularly regarding class mobility. Yet, despite access to a free public education system, countless families are subjected to living and learning in segregated and unequitable environments. To organizations considering partnerships between housing and schools working to address this, Tyronda Minter, vice president of educational initiatives at Urban Strategies, Inc., states “housing is linked to many educational outcomes, including chronic absenteeism. When housing and education partners align in high action, resources are maximized to better support children and families and advance diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Policy innovations can further help Black and economically disadvantaged Tulsa residents through “yes, and” approaches. In addition to creating mixed-income communities, initiatives can include:

  • Strengthening transportation systems, especially in historically underinvested communities. Transportation is a promising modality for furthering school integration, enabling students from economic disadvantage to travel to well-resourced schools and students from high-wealth communities to attend the same schools, eliminating barriers for parents who do not have the money or time to drive their child(ren) to school. Forbes highlighted a 2009 report from the University of Washington, which included survey responses from parents indicating that transportation is a barrier to school choice. Positively, the 2023 Consolidated Appropriations Act was signed by President Biden on December 29, 2022 which removes language that prohibits the use of federal funds for school desegregation transportation costs, a victory for school integration activists who spent years trying to eliminate these prohibitions. School districts now have a legally viable path of using school buses to transport students with the purpose of making schools more socioeconomically diverse.
  • Centering the voices of people and families most impacted by segregation in the
    development of integration solutions. An unfortunate truth in policymaking is that people who are the most impacted by policies are too often uninvited or underrepresented at the table. Thankfully, a new generation of advocates and activists are helping to change and diversify these decision-making spaces. Students as young as eleven, for example, have testified before the House of Representatives on their horrific experiences with mass school shootings in efforts to reform gun control laws. Similarly, students and families should participate in local, state, and federal hearings on developing integration solutions that are equitable, inclusive, and not placing a burden on communities of color and low-wage families. Research and commentaries are beginning to reflect the integration experiences of African Americans, and their voices should be heard in the beginning of legislative and policy processes for diversifying student bodies and eliminating barriers for success, most notably, the legacy and persistent ramifications of school segregation.

The work of organizations like Urban Strategies, Inc. is more important than ever, as the demographics of America continue to change. As the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recently released report shows, the U.S. student population is more diverse than ever before, but public schools remain highly segregated. In the 2020–21 school year, nearly 18.5 million students attended a predominantly same race/ethnicity school, and 14 percent of students attended a school where nearly all of the student body was the same race/ethnicity. Targeted policy interventions should open up pathways for individuals from all walks of life to experience the safety and opportunity that come with inclusive and well-resourced living and learning environments.

Header image: Urban Strategies, Inc. Facebook