Developer Ron Beit speaks near an artist's rendering during groundbreaking ceremonies in February for the Teachers Village development in downtown Newark, N.J.
They are two of the most persistent challenges in trying to rebuild long-struggling cities like Newark: improving the schools and growing a middle class.
Here, officials are hoping that a novel concept — reserving sleek new apartments designed by a world-famous architect for teachers — can help on both fronts.
"This is how we reinvent and rebuild a great American city," Mayor Cory Booker declared when ground was broken for Teachers Village, a downtown development of eight buildings planned to have 200 apartments for teachers, three charter schools, a day care center and stores. It's being designed by architect Richard Meier, a Newark native best known for designing the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The $150 million price is being covered by a combination of private and public funds.
The hope is that schools will be better with teachers who live in the community, and that it will create a middle-class enclave in a city where nearly one-third of families with children live in poverty. Middle-class residents can bring neighborhoods stability, attract more businesses and ultimately improve tax revenue.
But some educators are skeptical that Teachers Village, which is scheduled to open next year with rents ranging from $700 to $1,400 — a bargain in the New York metro area — will get and keep the residents being sought.
Crime is persistent in the city of 280,000. Over the past five years, there's been an average of more than 80 killings per year.
Michael Dixon, who has taught math to eighth-graders in New Jersey's largest city for more than a decade, moved his family to a suburb after a drive-by shooting on their block. With proposals to weaken the protections of tenure and roll back benefits for teachers, he said, an affordable apartment would not be enough to bring him back to the city where he was raised.
"If I was to move here with my family," he said, "what if they suddenly say: 'We don't need you?'"
Newark, like other urban school districts across the country, is desperate to hang onto good teachers.
Across the country, 30 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. But in urban and low-income districts, the turnover is closer to 50 percent. At last count the Newark schools had almost 90 vacancies.
One issue is that the idealistic young teachers provided through programs such as City Year and Teach for America, who get housing assistance as part of their deals, usually come from elsewhere and often leave after a few years, as soon as their commitments are up.
"Although they do a superb job in filling hard to fill jobs, they only stay for two years," said Joseph Del Grosso said, president of the Newark teachers union.
The ever-changing roster of teachers is seen as one factor in schools' struggles. In Newark, where big state subsidies make the schools among the nation's best funded, the majority of third-graders aren't reading or writing at grade level and barely half the students who begin high school graduate.
The city's state-run school district says only just over 500 of its 3,200 teachers — or about 17 percent — live in the city.
The idea of a housing complex just for teachers appears to be a unique approach, but the idea of trying to get teachers to live in inner cities and to commit to teaching there in the long term has taken root across the country in several ways.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers subsidies to teachers — along with police, firefighters and other public servants — to buy homes in designated revitalization areas. Some states and cities have their own subsidy programs to help teachers live in the districts where they teach. The Grow Your Own Teachers movement, which began in Chicago and has spread elsewhere, aims to help people who already live in low-income areas to become successful educators.
The Urban Teacher Residency United program, which has branches in cities including Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver and Memphis, focuses on building an intensive support, training and mentoring system for new teachers in troubled districts to keep them engaged and give them the tools they need to succeed.
Joanna Craig, a 24-year-old graduate student at the Bankstreet College of Education in Manhattan, spent a year teaching in Cleveland through the City Year program. She said a community specifically for teachers could be helpful because it would have a built-in support network of the kind the Urban Teacher Residency United program is trying to foster.
"I hear you don't become a good teacher until the fifth or sixth year, so for those just starting out, you would not be totally alone in a brand new city, in a really hard job," she said. "In the urban schools I've been in, a lot of teachers leave, and then those that are left behind stopped caring. I want to be the opposite of that."