Thank you for shining a much-needed light on the middle school crisis in your article “The New Math” (CW, Winter 2007). To the extent that children are falling through the cracks in our education system, middle school is clearly the chasm into which our most vulnerable students disappear. Consensus is building that the middle school construct is fundamentally broken. The only real debate is whether K-8 or 7-12 models would be a more effective alternative.

In Boston, an unacceptably high number of students will never complete high school. While there are a number of contributing factors in and out of school, the transition from middle to high school appears to be an entirely avoidable complication. Students from all 23 of the city’s middle schools feed into all of the high schools with no intentional framework or plan. While Boston’s high school reform efforts are viewed appropriately as a national model, the lack of a connection to the middle grades means that many of these reforms take root far too late to have a meaningful impact on students most at risk of dropping out. Extending the small high schools model into the middle grades represents our last, best chance to reach these vulnerable students through conventional means.

While it’s tempting to think of the dropout crisis as entirely the fault of schools, research indicates that the social and emotional needs of students are at least as important as their academic needs. Simply put, students become alienated and disengaged in the middle grades, attitudes that only harden as they enter high school. Engaging out-of-school activities and strong social service interventions at this critical stage can help us hold on to students. These wrap-around supports are much more likely to make a difference when paired with a school environment that eliminates the social and emotional disruptions associated with the transition to high school.

Stephen M. Pratt
Boston After School & Beyond


The University of California–Irvine study referenced in Statistically Significant (“Sociable Sprawl?”) reports that suburbanites are more involved in civic organizations and have more contacts with their neighbors than do city dwellers. Jan Brueckner, the study’s author, opines as a result that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Brueckner further speculates that higher criminal activity in high-density areas may make people suspicious of each other and reduce their willingness to interact.

Dr. Brueckner has it backward. High crime is not a given in urban neighborhoods. There is significant data that urban neighborhoods suffer from higher crime rates not because of density, but because they haven’t always been given the resources needed to build social networks.

Recent studies, along with the fieldwork that’s shaping the Urban Ecology Institute’s new Neighborhood Wellness Initiative, indicate that with proper community resources and conditions, urban neighborhoods will see increases in healthy social networks and, in turn, a reduction in crime. A 2005 Harvard study in Chicago comparing a number of dense urban neighborhoods found one variable that explained lower crime rates: “People’s willingness to look out for each other and especially for each other’s children.” The study pointed to neighborhood projects such as community planting programs and urban gardens as the best methods for building social networks that, in turn, increase public safety.

We need to invest in programs and public places that build social networks, not look to suburban sprawl as a social model. For example, a recent study of five Baltimore neighborhoods showed that residents in communities with more tree cover had a much lower desire to move away and a much higher involvement in community activities. Locally, UEI and its partners in Boston’s Urban Forest Coalition recently finished an inventory of Boston’s urban forest and found that lower-income communities and communities of color have half the street trees per capita of other neighborhoods. The city of Boston, to its great credit, is working to establish tree canopy goals that address these inequities.

Recently, UEI convened constituents from our partner neighborhoods to discuss urban environmental projects. We found that whether people are working to reclaim vacant lands or conducting science projects in schoolyards, the end result is more than cleaner air, water, and soil—or even improved academic performance. Our projects create social networks around public spaces where people connect with each other and share a vision for the neighborhoods they want to live in.

Weakness in social connections across neighborhoods is not a function of the inherent characteristics of certain types of neighborhoods, but rather is a function of a lack of investment in these neighborhoods. If suburban neighborhoods foster social connections, it is most likely because people have chosen to provide them with the tools to do so, often at the expense of urban social networks. The suburbs are no more the solution to the need for social networks than cities are the problem. In fact, urban neighborhoods provide assets for social networking—such as a diverse mix of people, activities, housing, and jobs, as well as walkability—that the suburbs can’t hope to match.

Charlie Lord
Executive Director
Urban Ecology Institute


Senate President Therese Murray, who last month became the first woman to lead either branch of the Legislature, is not a new face for veteran readers of CommonWealth. She was profiled in our inaugural issue in 1996.

At the time, the Plymouth Democrat was in her second term and had become a major player in the state’s welfare reform law. “It was Murray who initiated provisions demanding recipients take more responsibility for finding jobs and improving their lives,” wrote CommonWealth’s Laura Pappano.

As for her governing style? “I am not a policy wonk,” Murray said at the time. “I am not a process person. I am an open person.” Still, Pappano concluded, “Despite Murray’s genuine real-person-trying-to-make-it aura, she is very much the practiced politician.”

Read “True Grit.”