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Journal of Education Policy
Vol. 23, No. 2, March 2008, 165–179
ISSN 0268-0939 print/ISSN 1464-5106 online
© 2008 Taylor & Francis
Re-branding urban schools: urban revitalization, social status, and
marketing public schools to the upper middle class
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, USA
Taylor and FrancisTEDP_A_285462.sgm10.1080/02680930701853088Journal of Education Policy0268-0939 (print)/1464-5106 (online)Original Article2008Taylor & Francis232000000March 2008MaiaCucchiaramaiac@verizon.net
This article examines an effort to use urban schools to promote the revitalization of a large
northeastern city in the United States. In order to attract and retain professional families to a
regenerated central city, downtown schools are re-branded and promoted to such families as
suitable for their children. The article draws on interviews and observation in a particular
downtown elementary school to examine the experiences of different groups of parents in this
new educational market. The data reveal how middle- and upper-class parents are treated as
sought-after customers who gain and retain positions of influence over the direction of the
school once their children are admitted. However, the same processes marginalize low-income
and minority parents. The article concludes that while the goals of the policy may be ostensibly
worthy, one of its consequences is to reinscribe existing status positions and inequalities.
Keywords: urban revitalization; school choice; middle-class parents; urban education; social
After decades of decline, downtown Philadelphia (locally known as Center City) is in the midst
of a resurgence. The real estate market is booming, new shops and restaurants open every day,
and Philadelphia as a whole has received national attention as the newly energized ‘next great
city’ – largely because Center City has become so vital and prosperous. While revitalization
efforts in cities like Philadelphia have traditionally focused on business investment, retail, real
estate, and tourism, local elites have lately turned to education as an additional vehicle for urban
renewal. As a result, in Philadelphia, as in Boston, Chicago, and other cities, efforts are under way
to make the downtown public schools more appealing to ‘knowledge workers’ and their families,
the very highly skilled, relatively affluent professionals whom civic leaders believe are key to the
city’s long-term prospects.
The Center City Schools Initiative (CCSI), a partnership between the Center City District
(CCD, a local business improvement district)
and the School District of Philadelphia, is an explicit
attempt to attract and retain professional families to the Philadelphia public schools and, by exten-
sion, to the city itself. CCSI hopes to convince upper-middle-class Center City families (who
continue to leave the city in droves in search of higher performing, suburban public schools) that
Philadelphia’s public schools can be viable, attractive options for their children. It uses a marketing
campaign, changes to school district administrative and admissions procedures, and increased
resources for Center City schools to provide downtown parents with enhanced school choice.
This article will show that through CCSI, schools become incorporated into the discourse and
practices of urban revitalization, a process that involves the repositioning (or ‘re-branding’) of
select schools and the construction of a new set of highly valued customers: upper-middle-class
166 M. Cucchiara
parents. The article draws on an ethnographic study of a targeted elementary school to explore
the consequences of these processes for parents ‘on the ground’, focusing on the intersection
between CCSI and local dynamics of class and race. It will demonstrate that the initiative, in
conjunction with normative assumptions about class and behavior, reshaped the educational
marketplace, advantaging downtown, upper-middle-class parents while marginalizing those who
did not fit with the new image of a revitalized city and its revitalized schools.
The data presented in this article are drawn from a larger study of CCSI within Philadelphia’s
policy environment. School district and CCD documents as well as interviews with school district
and CCD staff illuminate the goals and assumptions behind CCSI and the ways in which admin-
istrators understood the project of marketing the public schools. A multi-year ethnographic study
of a parents’ organization at Grant Elementary School, a Center City school that was heavily
targeted by CCSI, documents the ways parents were affected by the initiative. In addition to atten-
dance at weekly or monthly parent–teacher organization (PTO) meetings for over two years, the
ethnographic research included participant-observation in numerous school events, classroom
observation, and twenty interviews with parents, teachers, and administrators over the course of
The research design, data collection, and analysis processes were all heavily influenced by
critical policy scholarship. Critical policy research examines the origins and consequences of
social policy in such a way that issues of equity and social justice are at the foreground of the
research (Ball 1990, 1997; Ozga 2000; Lipman 2004). This approach stands in contrast to tradi-
tional policy research, which tends to view policies in isolation from the social, political, and
economic context and to focus on assessing the extent to which a policy is successful in realizing
its goals. The research described here makes use of the urban political economy literature to
understand how it is that Philadelphia’s current context has given rise to CCSI and the ways in
which the initiative resonates with current trends around economic restructuring, global compe-
tition, and urban inequality (Logan and Molotch 1987; Mollenkopf and Castells 1991; Rury and
Mirel 1997; Lipman 2004).
‘Knowledge workers’ and revitalizing cities
CCSI is an expression of a particular theory about how cities like Philadelphia – former industrial
giants that have lost their manufacturing base in recent decades and, as a result, have experienced
significant social and economic deterioration – can overcome the challenges of the post-industrial
era and compete in the global market. Put simply, leaders at the CCD, like business and civic lead-
ers in similar cities across the United States, believe that cities will survive and prosper only when
they become centers of the new information and service economies. In order to attract the mobile
capital and labor these economies require, cities have embraced their new identity as sites of
middle- and upper-class residence, recreation, and consumption (Boyer 1992; Zukin 1995;
Grazian 2003). A large body of research has explored the processes put into place by such trans-
formations, noting particularly the growing polarization between affluent parts of the city and
those left behind by the new economy (e.g. Mollenkopf and Castells 1991; Judd and Swanstrom
1994; Sassen 1994; Wilson 1996; Newman 2004).
The CCD is quite explicit about the importance of attracting and retaining highly educated
‘knowledge workers’ to Philadelphia. In explaining his thinking on the matter, Paul Levy, the
organization’s director, cites research that has linked higher levels of education to urban economic
growth (e.g. Florida 2002; Weissbourd and Berry 2004). He argues, ‘In the old economy, the
Journal of Education Policy 167
South exploited its cheaper land and labour to lure manufacturers. Now, cities get richer by
expanding the supply of smart people’, specifically, educated workers between the ages of 35 and
44 who have entered ‘prime earning-growth years’ (Levy 2003). These professionals, many of
whom make their home in Center City, are ‘highly mobile’, have ‘a wide range of choices in the
global economy’, and are key to the city’s prosperity (CCD Growing Smarter document [GS]).
The gleaming office towers, open-air cafés, expensive shops, and luxury condominiums of
Center City Philadelphia bring this vision to life. Indeed, Center City has become increasingly
affluent over the past decade. The residents of Philadelphia’s downtown area are highly educated:
whereas only 18% of Philadelphia’s adults hold college degrees, 66.7% of downtown residents
do, placing the area just behind Chicago’s downtown and Midtown Manhattan (Birch 2005).
Incomes are also high, with the most affluent downtown tract boasting a 2000 median income of
nearly $90,000, which was 183% of the region’s median income and 283% of the city’s (Birch
2005). In 2002, the median home sale price citywide was $60,000, reflecting a 20% increase since
1997. In contrast, the median sale price in several of the ‘hottest’ downtown neighborhoods was
over $350,000, a 300% increase in the case of one neighborhood (Philadelphia City Planning
Commission 2005). In fact, though the popular rhetoric around CCSI in Philadelphia often used
the term ‘middle class’ to refer to the initiative’s target population, Center City had become so
affluent by the time of this research that ‘upper-middle class’ is a more apt term and is used
throughout this article. The vast majority of Center City residents are single and do not have chil-
dren. However, families with young children represent a visible and growing sector of the area’s
population (Slobodzian 2007).
CCSI was the brainchild of the CCD’s director, but it quickly became a partnership with the
School District of Philadelphia, as both organizations worked to create a system of enhanced
school choice that would keep professional families from moving to the suburbs. The initia-
tive’s strategy included marketing the public schools to downtown parents, consolidating all
schools in the downtown area into the ‘Center City Region’ (a new administrative unit within
the school district), improving the appearance (or ‘curb appeal’) of Center City schools, a new
focus on ‘customer service’
for the schools, cultivating partnerships with local organizations
and institutions to bring resources and enrichment to the schools, and other policy and program-
matic changes designed to help downtown schools compete with independent and suburban
schools. The partnership further led to a new district admissions policy, the ‘Secondary
Regional Catchment Area Admission/Transfer Policy’ (SRCAA/TP), which gave Center City
families priority in admissions to all elementary schools in the new region.
In theory, the initia-
tive enabled Center City parents to choose from a variety of high-performing, newly energised
elementary schools, and allowed them to be confident that other parents like them were making
the same choices (Ball and Vincent 1998).
A marketed school
Grant Elementary School is one of the most popular Center City schools. It is located in Cobble
Square, a neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia known for its large townhouses, shady
streets, and landmarks from the city’s colonial past. Cobble Square real estate values are high
compared with the rest of the city. For example, the 2002 median sale price, $477,500, was the
highest in the city and nearly six times the city’s median sale price (Philadelphia City Planning
A large, imposing building, Grant looms above its townhouse neighbors. The school serves
nearly 500 students ranging in age from five to 14 (kindergarten through eighth grades). Grant’s
catchment area covers several Center City neighborhoods, including Cobble Square and the
nearby Chinatown. The school is extremely diverse: 42% African American, 41% Asian, 12%
168 M. Cucchiara
white, 3% Latino, and 2% ‘Other’ (School District of Philadelphia 2006a). Grant’s population is
also relatively advantaged compared with that of the Philadelphia school district as a whole.
Whereas 73% of Philadelphia students were classified as ‘low-income’ in 2005–6, only 47% of
Grant students were.
Despite Grant’s reputation as a good school, most Cobble Square families chose to send their
children to one of the local private schools. Spots at Grant were in great demand, however, by
students from other parts of the city. In the years before CCSI, hundreds of students applied annu-
ally to transfer to Grant from other schools, and only a fraction were accepted (School District of
Philadelphia 2003). During the 2005–6 school year, 51% of Grant students actually lived in the
catchment area. Forty-nine per cent of the students transferred to Grant from other schools – 12%
from within the broader Center City region, and 37% from other parts of the city. Transfer
students at Grant, as at the other desirable downtown schools, were largely African American and
from lower income areas (School District of Philadelphia 2006b).
Marketing urban schools
Marketing the Center City schools was central to CCSI. However, the initiative’s efforts in this
area were not designed to raise the schools’ profiles or make them more attractive to Philadelphia
parents in general. Rather, because of its assumptions about urban revitalization and who matters
to the city’s future, the initiative singled out a particular group – highly educated, professional
parents living downtown – as its target audience.
For a variety of reasons, marketing the Philadelphia public schools to these parents was a
major challenge. The School District of Philadelphia had long struggled with poor student
achievement and inadequate resources, and its failures became national news when the state
took over the school district in 2001. At the time of this research, despite rising achievement and
generally respected leadership, the district was still a highly stigmatized organization that
served a predominantly low-income and African-American population. Middle- and upper-class
parents were largely reluctant to use the public schools. Nearby suburbs, many of which had
high-performing, well-resourced schools, drew scores of these families when their children
reached school age. Charter schools, more of which were approved each year, were also becom-
ing increasingly attractive to parents eager to escape the public system. Finally, Philadelphia
had a vibrant independent and parochial school scene.
Thus, highly educated and relatively
affluent Center City parents were unlikely to choose the local public schools without significant
The CCD’s primary goal for CCSI was to help the downtown schools ‘change their market
position’, a replication of its earlier successful approach to revitalizing the downtown housing
market (Administrator, CCD). The organization’s marketing strategy included postcards inform-
ing downtown parents about CCSI and the public schools, a new website for the region with links
to each school, a region-wide Center City Schools Fair, appearances at numerous community meet-
ings, and coverage in the local media. Of the $250,000 the CCD received from the state Department
of Education for CCSI (through a grant to the school district which then contracted with the orga-
nization), $143,800 was designated for ‘promotion, public relations, advertising, and enrichment
start-up funds’, with the bulk of the remaining funds paying for an administrator to coordinate
these efforts (School District of Philadelphia [SDP], Demonstration Grant Application).
Re-branding Center City schools
How can upper-middle-class parents, who have a variety of options for their children’s education,
be convinced to send them to schools that are part of a highly stigmatized system? How can a
Journal of Education Policy 169
marketing campaign overcome the associations with failure, dysfunction, poverty, and violence
that tarnish these schools? CCSI attempted to accomplish these tasks by establishing a new iden-
tity for Center City schools, something that distinguished them very clearly from the rest of the
system and marked them (and the people involved with them) as special and elite.
According to Miriam Greenberg (2000, 228), a city is ‘produced not only materially and
geographically but also in the social imagination and through changing modes of cultural repre-
sentation’. She uses the term ‘urban imaginary’ to describe the ways these representations shape
people’s understandings and perceptions of particular cities. Such identities are fluid and become
the focus of deliberate efforts to market cities, with local agencies and businesses striving to
produce or alter the cities’ images to make them more appealing to mobile capital and labor.
In the same spirit, CCSI created a new ‘academic imaginary’, a subset of the city’s schools
that was distinct from the district as a whole and possessed its own identity, deliberately
constructed and managed to appeal to professional parents. Creating this new imaginary involved
changing the image of Center City schools as a group and crafting compelling, attractive identi-
ties for individual schools.
CCD and school district administrators did this first by creating institutional distance from the
rest of the school district, altering the district’s administrative structure to demarcate a particular
group of schools as unique. Thus, the district consolidated all Center City schools into a new
academic unit (the Center City Region) and, at the CCD’s request, altered the admissions policy
for that region. The district also moved an experienced, highly regarded administrator (who had
been the director of a region serving largely low-income and minority students) to direct the new
region. The creation of this new region, with its unique educational market and high-status loca-
tion, signalled that it was a place where schools, parents, and students would receive special treat-
ment, such as different rules and procedures around admissions, a higher profile within the
district, and ‘priority in partnership development’ for the schools (Administrator, SDP, Central
CCSI further developed the new identity of its schools by creating symbolic distance from
the rest of the district. According to an administrator with the CCD, it was important for people
to recognize downtown schools as such, which necessitated some form of visual continuity from
school to school. She continued that ‘we want to brand the Center City schools using banners
and signage’ (Administrator, CCD).
Branding as a marketing strategy deliberately creates
connections, operating on emotional and subconscious levels, between the goods being
marketed and broader conceptions of lifestyle and identity (Greenberg 2000). In this case, the
branding of the Center City schools was an effort to reshape the ways customers (e.g. parents)
understood the schools and the images they associated with them, exchanging the schools’ asso-
ciation with the ‘inner city’ for an identity tied to their location in the affluent downtown area.
The CCD’s marketing strategy also strove to make it clear how the schools were different
from Philadelphia’s ‘inner-city’ schools. First, the schools and the region as a whole were to be
‘more customer friendly, mirroring the culture of independent schools’ (Center City Digest 2004;
see also Ball, Bowe, and Gewirtz 1995). Parents from Center City who engaged with the region
as they were choosing schools and once they had enrolled their children in a particular school,
were to be treated as valued customers. According to the director of the new region:
I see my job as, if it’s something that needs to be done, I need to help get it done. If something needs
to happen, I need to help make it happen. If there are questions to be answered, I need to make sure
the questions are answered. When there are parents involved, I need to know how to make parents
feel special. And feel like they are … they’re it. And if they need something, I need to try to take care
of it. (Administrator, SDP, Regional Office)
CCD and school district staff repeated this emphasis on parents as customers often, noting, in
many cases, what a major paradigm shift it was for the district. The CCD also made the special
170 M. Cucchiara
treatment for downtown parents clear when it advertised the shift in the admissions policy on its
website, in publications, and at public events. According to one administrator, parents were very
aware of this difference: ‘I feel that the message out there to parents is that if you live within the
Center City district, you’ll get preferential treatments to which school you choose to go to. I think
that message has been clear. Parents really are jumping on that’ (Administrator, SDP, Grant
In fact, the very existence of an administrator at the CCD whose job it was to work with these
parents, and who willingly shared her home phone number with them, was evidence of the
enhanced service they would receive. In contrast to the rest of the district, where (at least accord-
ing to its image) the bureaucracy was large, parents were not valued as customers, and nameless,
faceless bureaucrats had no incentive to provide high-quality service, the Center City Region
could be distinguished by its emphasis on customer service, its special treatment for downtown
parents, and the presence of an intermediary who could help parents interface with the school
A final piece of the larger effort to generate symbolic distance between downtown schools
and the rest of the district, and another example of the marketing language that pervaded the project,
was the plan to create a ‘signature’ for each school. By signature, school district and CCD staff
meant a characteristic or emphasis, such as an ‘international’ focus, that would identify a school
as unique. In contrast to an intensive, all-school theme, the development of signatures was largely
a marketing strategy, which would get the schools ‘thinking about their strengths’, and, by making
the schools ‘distinctive’, give marketing efforts something to ‘showcase’ (Administrator, CCD).
An early CCSI publication made this logic clear, explaining that a key component of CCSI would
be to ‘foster choice and product differentiation among downtown schools’ (GS). By creating
unique signatures at each school, CCSI also enhanced the perception that these schools were differ-
ent from the vast majority of neighborhood schools, which lacked such organizing principles or
A certain kind of neighborhood school: marketing Grant Elementary
At Grant, as with CCSI in general, marketing efforts revolved around the creation of a new iden-
tity for the school, one that overcame the broader association with the school district and ‘inner-
In this case, the new academic imaginary was one of a downtown, neighborhood
school serving a high-status community. A conversation between a group of Center City parents
at a PTO meeting provides a good example of how deliberate parents were in managing Grant’s
Sara moves to the Safe Schools Annual report. She says, ‘This report has all the serious infractions
for 2002–3 broken down by school. Grant had only five incidents of severe problems, putting it in the
top 20% in the district. Three of the incidents led to transfers to disciplinary schools, two to lateral
transfers. Should we publicize this? This is a great record, people should be made aware of it.’
Lesley: Why do this?
Kate: To publicize Grant.
Sharon: To me, five incidents would make me say, ’bye Grant.
Lesley: Academic achievement is something to praise, not safety.
Maria: Something about it sounds backhanded. Five kids? What did they do?
Sara [reading report]: Violations: assault on teacher, threats, weapons …
Sharon [emphatically]: We don’t want to publicize this!
Sara: But compared to others –
Sharon: Compared to the war zone! We don’t want to even talk about this issue.
It will only scare people.
Sara agrees and the conversation moves on. (PTO Parents 2004)
Journal of Education Policy 171
Because the school district as a whole had such problems with violence, it was important to
parents to show that Grant was different. While Grant’s record in this area may have been superior
to other school district schools, the Center City parents at the meeting believed that potential
parents were not comparing Grant to ‘the war zone’. Grant, they felt, should be in a different class
In other cases, the emphasis on shifting Grant’s identity to Cobble Square went beyond
appearances and included the elaboration of a different set of expectations. For example, at a PTO
meeting, a Cobble Square mother angrily recounted her encounter with an administrator (the prin-
cipal who, a year later, would be replaced). According to this parent, after she had shared some
of her concerns about academics and school climate, the principal responded that she had been
‘handpicked’ for Grant because she had ‘experience in inner-city schools’. The mother retorted
indignantly, ‘This is not an inner-city school! This is a Cobble Square school!’ (Field note
By emphasizing Grant’s association with Cobble Square, parents were claiming a far
more elite identity for the school and demanding that expectations and practices be altered
Another way of managing the school’s identity was to highlight its membership within the
cadre of elite Center City schools. To many parents at Grant, the school district seemed to be
comprised of two groups, the vast majority of troubled, low-performing schools and the ‘Big
Three’ high-performing Center City schools (of which Grant was one). As one parent from
Cobble Square said, discussing the inclusion of all three schools within the new Center City
Region, ‘they probably have the most in common of any three schools in the entire school
district!’ With the growing prominence of CCSI and the introduction of the new region, parents
sometimes adopted the initiative’s language, speaking proudly of Grant’s identity as a ‘Center
City School’. Parents and educators used Grant’s status as a downtown school to highlight its
uniqueness, noting that Grant students had access to museums and other cultural institutions not
available to students at other schools. In fact, CCSI itself was a selling point, evidence that the
school was special and would receive additional attention and resources.
The creation of a new imaginary for Grant also involved implicit and explicit appeals to status
– essentially, attempts to show that ‘the right sort of people’ sent their children to Grant. These
efforts were important because, as research has shown, social ties play a key role in parents’
school choice decisions, and Center City parents felt more comfortable choosing Grant if they
could point to ‘people like them’, or people of even higher social status, who had made a similar
choice (Jellison Holme 2002; Reay 2004). For example, the PTO held an opera concert at the
school (which many parents attended in formal evening garb), and parents organized a cocktail
party fundraiser at an elegant, historic Cobble Square property, where guests drank white wine
and waiters passed hors d’oeuvres. The latter event involved a silent auction, in which several
bids exceeded a thousand dollars, and the superintendent of schools, who served as the auction-
eer, made jokes about how much money parents were spending. By drawing upon markers of high
social status, such activities allowed parents to show that Grant was a school that served a more
advantaged population and had been chosen by people who, in contrast to many Philadelphia
parents, had other options for their children.
A final, and perhaps the most important, piece of Grant’s new identity was its (re)construction
as a neighborhood school. Though less than half of Grant’s students actually came from the catch-
ment area, and only a tiny percentage came from its immediate neighborhood, parents, adminis-
trators, and CCD staff all spoke of their goal of making Grant into a neighborhood school. In
doing so, they invoked images of an idealized, old-fashioned community, where families know
other families, walk to and from school, participate in evening and weekend events at the school,
and view Grant as the center of neighborhood life. In some ways, this image was reminiscent of
a suburban school; in fact, the principal used her experiences in the suburbs to elaborate on the
172 M. Cucchiara
possibilities, but with a hip, urban twist that drew upon its diversity and proximity to local cultural
institutions. A CCD postcard, with a picture of a white, professionally dressed father walking
with his son in a schoolyard populated by children of all races and ethnicities, holds out the
Walking your kids to school. Taking lunch in the front row of the school play. Personally introducing
them to Philadelphia’s theater, art, music and history. Center City schools offer you the opportunity
to be more involved in your children’s lives through the unique shared experiences that come from
working, playing, living and learning right here.
At the school’s open house (2005), several parents from Cobble Square echoed these themes,
extolling the virtues of their ‘neighborhood school’ and linking it to a downtown lifestyle. As one
parent said, ‘I am just thrilled to be here. I am so happy with our decision to come to our neigh-
borhood school. I love the city lifestyle. We walk everywhere. I always feel like I’m on vacation.’
Essentially, the construction of Grant as a neighborhood school evokes an idealized urban space
dominated by a middle-class ethos, an ‘urban village’ of sorts where families of similar status
who share key norms and values experience the best of city life.
Different classes of customers
These marketing efforts implicitly and explicitly differentiated between parents, identifying
upper-middle-class parents as ‘valued customers’ and ignoring or rejecting others. At Grant, this
differentiation was rooted in normative assumptions about the ways in which upper-middle-class
families could help improve the schools. In fact, even before CCSI took effect, many Center City
parents at Grant were determined to increase the number of families like theirs (i.e. upper middle
class) at the school. These parents, and the educators who shared their vision, believed that
affluent parents, with their greater levels of cultural, social, and financial capital, would bring
important resources and opportunities to Grant. In addition, upper-middle-class parents (and
many educators) believed that children from these families would be more motivated and possess
better academic skills and would, as a result, have a civilizing effect on other students. As an SDP
administrator at Grant Elementary said, if more Cobble Square students attended the school it
‘would help the diverse population in everything. You know, academics, behavior, helping the
students to be better citizens’. Essentially, Grant parents and educators believed that an increased
middle-class (or upper-middle-class) presence in the school would help transform the school’s
‘ethos into one of a middle-class school’ (Butler and Robson 2003, p. 72). Grant would then
become a place where, in contrast to the disorderly ‘inner-city’ schools, students generally
accepted the teachers’ authority, followed the rules, and, with their families, were invested in
the broader project of achieving academically, developing intellectual and creative skills, and
attaining the appropriate credentials.
As a partnership between the district and the CCD with the stated goal of attracting and retain-
ing ‘knowledge workers’ and their families, CCSI legitimized these assumptions about middle-
class families. It made attracting such families a clear policy goal and made the strategies schools
could use to accomplish this a reform priority and topic of conversation within the school. For
example, school district administrators spoke repeatedly about the need to keep Center City fami-
lies in the schools and in the city. These families were the target audience for an open house held
at Grant, because, in the words of one parent, ‘so many from around here go to private schools’.
The district also added attracting Center City families to the principals’ list of responsibilities
beginning in 2005, and the grant funding CCSI included as one of its outcome measures a 20%
increase in the number of Center City families enrolled in the downtown public schools.
While the marketing campaign constructed one group of parents as the customers of greatest
value, it ignored another group of parents: low-income African-American parents who lived
Journal of Education Policy 173
outside of Center City and transferred their children into Grant as a way of escaping the low-
performing, often violent schools in their neighborhoods.
These families were the implicit
other against which middle-class virtue was compared, they were explicitly not the customers to
which Grant was being marketed, and they did not fit within the new identity being forged for the
‘Transfer’ parents were well aware of the ways in which the marketing campaign undermined
their status at the school. For example, Sabrina, a low-income single mother from outside of
Center City, was frustrated by the focus on ‘neighborhood’ (or Cobble Square) families:
Every meeting we go to they’re talking about, ‘And two more families coming in. They’re neighbor-
hoods.’ That’s kind of like a prejudice to me. You know what I mean? … What’s so important about
this person from the neighborhood coming here? It’s not like this is a private school where their
money is cash and mine is from the government. You know what I mean? There’s no difference! I can
see the behaviors and things like that playing a part, but they’re just so adamant about this neighbor-
hood… . When they say that to me, it’s kind of like I’m supporting this school that’s not even support-
ing my kid, because he’s not from the neighborhood. You understand? (Sabrina, parent, West
Sabrina’s comment illuminates a key dynamic around CCSI: that the emerging educational
market in Center City positioned parents differently based upon the resources they could contrib-
ute to the school (namely, the forms of capital at their disposal), rather than their entitlement to
the school’s services. The link CCSI drew between the presence of professional families and the
future of the city exacerbated this dynamic by giving upper-middle-class parents additional
currency that parents like Sabrina simply did not have.
Other ‘transfer’ parents felt similarly marginalized by the marketing campaign. They believed
that the Center City parents behind it hoped to keep out low-income and minority children, the
‘riff-raff’, as one mother phrased it, because those children would be evidence that the ‘school is
going down’ (2005). To these parents, the campaign was as much about excluding undesirables
as it was about attracting a different population. As Lipman (2004) notes, policies shape not only
official actions but also the ways people in local settings understand their resources, power, and
the range of options available to them. The consequences for ‘transfer’ parents were a sense that
they were unwanted at the school and, more importantly, somehow less entitled to full member-
ship within Grant’s community.
A new market
The refashioning of Center City schools as vehicles for urban revitalization altered the educa-
tional market in the new region. While proponents of CCSI extolled the new system of choice,
the actual consequences were far more complicated. As the following stories of four parents
engaging in the marketplace make clear, race, class, and geography had a significant impact on
parents’ experiences in selecting and applying to Grant and, by extension, on their sense of
belonging and power within the school.
Catherine and Sue Anne were both white Cobble Square mothers, members of the profes-
sional middle class, college educated or higher, and relatively affluent. When they were asked (in
separate interviews) about their choice process, they both told fairly long, involved stories about
comparing public, private, and (in Sue Anne’s case) parochial and charter schools.
attractive to them because it had a good reputation, was located in their neighborhood, which
enabled them to walk their children to and from school, and was free. Both parents said they were
discouraged from using private schools because they had more than one child and the tuition
would just be too high. For Catherine, who was an educator, part of the appeal of coming to Grant
was also the opportunity to work with other parents on improving the school:
174 M. Cucchiara
So it was a little bit of financial issue, a little bit of … we could really make a difference with all these
really great people involved… . Let me put my money where my mouth is and shut up and stop
complaining about my neighborhood school if I’m in a position to maybe help do something about it.
(Catherine, parent, Cobble Square)
Thus, Catherine came to Grant with a belief that by getting involved with the school she would
be making a contribution to the larger project of improving public education in the city.
Both parents recalled being heavily recruited by other Cobble Square parents who sent their
children to Grant. They described numerous conversations, meetings, notes in their mailboxes,
and phone calls from other parents, and both understood from this that their status at the school,
as affluent Center City parents, would be special in some way. For Catherine, again because she
believed she could help improve Grant, the thought that parents like herself would be particularly
valued by the school was a major selling point. In explaining her final decision to send her child
to Grant, she said she was heavily influenced by another neighborhood mother who told her she
was so powerful in the school that ‘they’ll do anything I want them to do!’ Sue Anne had a similar
sense that she and her child would be very wanted at the school: ‘I’ve never felt so recruited in
my life… . Like, I felt like if I had been an athlete, maybe I’d have gotten a car!’ Despite their
children’s positive experiences at Grant, Catherine and Sue Anne expressed on-going reservation
about the school’s academics and climate and emphasized keeping their options open. Sue Anne
and her husband reminded each other often that they could always move their child to a different
school, and Catherine, dissatisfied with Grant’s academic climate and her own experience with
the PTO, eventually put her child in private school. Because both parents lived within the catch-
ment area, they did not have to struggle to get their children into the school. Rather, their original
encounters with the school were as highly prized patrons who could always withdraw their
patronage if they were not satisfied.
Kim and Patricia’s experiences were very different. Both African American, they lived in
different, low-income parts of the city some distance from Grant’s catchment area. At the time of
their interviews, Kim had a bachelor’s degree and Patricia had almost completed her degree. In
contrast to Catherine and Sue Anne’s concerns about Grant, Kim and Patricia spoke highly of the
school’s programs and believed it deserved its good reputation. Both Kim and Patricia chose
Grant as a way of escaping the schools in their neighborhoods. Patricia had a terrible impression
of her neighborhood school:
I got a school right up the street, and when they come [out at the end of the day], they wild. I mean,
it’s wild, and it’s like, where, what the parents doing at home? … Like they, every time they coming
out of there, it’s a fight. Most of the time it’s a fight… . My sister in law, she’s here, and a lot of times
she has to chase them to get them off my car, or, they’re hanging on my step … Instead of just going
straight home to do homework or whatever they need to do, they just wild. (Patricia, parent, North
Patricia and her husband, who was a soldier in Iraq, debated sending their child to parochial
school but were advised by his preschool teacher (and later her hairdresser) to try to get him into
one of the good Center City elementary schools. A family friend, thought to have ‘pull’ at the
school, promised to get their son into Grant, but his help turned out to be insufficient. Their first
encounter with the principal was quite negative when, as potential transfer parents, they tried to
enrol their child in the school:
[W]hen we first took the paperwork down there, [Ms Ashton] did come off with like a little bit of a
attitude, and I told my husband, I was like, ‘Well, maybe it was just me,’ then I said well, ‘I know
I kind of look young,’ because I brought my paperwork and I said, you know, ‘Hi, I’m Patricia and
so and so, we were supposed to meet,’ and she was like, ‘Well, I’mma tell you right now, we don’t
have, we may, are only accepting for kindergarten, but you have to fill this out first.’ And it was like
the way she said it to me. And I’m like, so I instantly got like a attitude, because I felt like she was
Journal of Education Policy 175
talking to me like I was some young parent, that didn’t know any better. So, I just said, ‘Well you
know what, here is the paperwork.’ Then my husband came in, and she was looking at it. So, my
husband saw my face, he knew me, he was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘You know what, you need
to talk to her, because, I think if I say any more, there might be a confrontation … because I didn’t
like the way she talked to me just now… . Maybe it’s me, you talk to her.’ (Patricia, parent, North
By the September their son was supposed to begin kindergarten, Patricia and her husband still did
not know if he had been accepted at Grant. When they finally heard from the principal that there
was a spot for him, they were also told they would have to repeat the application process for the
Kim also had to struggle to get her children into Grant. Her story began at her neighborhood
school, where her son received special services. Dissatisfied with the quality of these services,
she requested that he be transferred to one of the high-performing Center City schools. Her first
request for a transfer was denied. Her children then remained in the neighborhood school while
she ‘fought for a year to get them out’. After speaking several times at public school district meet-
ings, she finally persuaded the district to allow her children to transfer: the district superintendent
‘offered us Grant. I was happy with Grant’.
While Kim and Patricia were both successful in enrolling their children at Grant, it is impor-
tant to note that many parents like them were not as fortunate. For example, according to the
district, in 2003 (the year before Patricia’s son applied for admission), 358 students applied to
Grant and only 12 were accepted (School District of Philadelphia 2003).
In fact, once SRCAA/
TP, the new transfer policy, went into effect (in time for the 2006–7 school year), no parents from
outside of Center City attained admissions for their children at Grant or any of the other highly
regarded Center City schools through the regular transfer process.
Thus, the story of Kim and
Patricia provides insight into the ways members of the less-desired population experienced the
choice process, though Kim and Patricia were still, in a sense, among the fortunate ones. Even for
Kim and Patricia, though, this victory still came at some cost: their first encounter with the school
was from the position of someone who was not entitled to be there, someone who had had to
‘work the system’ to attain resources that were not supposed to be available to them.
Clearly, Catherine, Sue Anne, Kim, and Patricia experienced the choice process very differ-
ently. Whereas Catherine and Sue Anne felt that they were important to, and desired by, the
school community, Kim and Patricia had to fight their way in, and Patricia at least reported feel-
ing insulted by the school principal. The literature on school choice has amply documented the
ways parents’ class and race-based resources affect their ability to choose schools for their chil-
dren (Moore and Davenport 1990; Ball, Bowe, and Gewirtz 1995; Fuller, Elmore, and Orfield
1996; Martinez, Goodwin, and Kemerer 1996; Wells 1996; Reay and Ball 1998; Smrekar and
Goldring 1999; Neild 2005). However, the resources these parents brought to the choice process,
though they may have varied by class, by no means fully explain their different experiences.
Rather, the educational market as it was reshaped by CCSI positioned parents very differently by
virtue of their area of residence (and, by extension, race and class status).
In attempting to use schools to promote urban revitalization, CCSI constructed more affluent
families as a scarce commodity that must be wooed into the schools and satisfied once there.
It emphasized the class-based resources parents brought to schools and, by linking the presence
of professional families with the future of the city and its schools, justified policies that privileged
these families. This article thus complicates assumptions about the ways in which initiatives like
CCSI can help ‘revitalize’ struggling cities and schools. Such policies may well bring families
possessed of important resources to the schools, and they may further economic growth in the city
176 M. Cucchiara
as a whole. They also, however, have the potential to re-inscribe social status, exacerbating the
effects of race, class, and geography on students’ educational experiences and opportunities.
Educational access has long been linked to residence in the United States (Kozol 1991).
However, CCSI created a heightened spatialization of educational rights, tightening the link
between geography and the resources and opportunity available to students in Philadelphia in a
way that advantaged the already advantaged and further marginalized the vulnerable. In the past
several decades, urban revitalization efforts have identified downtowns and other prosperous
parts of the city as more likely to appeal to businesses and affluent residents and consumers and,
thus, as more worthy targets of investment than other, less desirable areas. CCSI, a model of revi-
talization through education, extended this strategy of uneven development. It gave benefits to
people and schools based on their location in areas that were already more advantaged than other
parts of the city. The results are new geographic patterns of opportunity and inequality, as schools
become complicit in the creation of a ‘dual city’ (Mollenkopf and Castells 1991), where resources
and opportunities go to those who need it the least but are most likely to advance the city’s status
The policy goals CCSI articulates – higher quality schools that appeal to Philadelphians of all
classes, a larger number of middle-class families interested and invested in the public schools, a
school system that helps reverse middle-class flight – are all valuable and worth pursuing. What
this article has shown, however, is that the ways the initiative seeks to achieve these goals, partic-
ularly its emphasis on marketing and its targeting of resources and opportunities to already advan-
taged areas, have troubling implications for equity. As urban areas continue to struggle with the
twin processes of decline and regeneration, it will be essential to develop strategies for enlisting
schools in creating cities that are both more prosperous and more equitable.
The author would like to thank Ruth Lupton and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable
feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
1. Business improvement districts (BIDs) are private organizations authorized to levy taxes on properties
within a specific geographic area. They are typically organized by businesses within the area and
provide services including security, street cleaning, and marketing. The CCD is one of the largest BIDs
in the country.
2. Parents in US cities can choose from public, charter, private (or ‘independent’), and parochial schools.
In Philadelphia, students are assigned to a public elementary school based on their residence within the
school’s catchment area. Some students are able to use the district’s transfer process to opt out of this
assignment, but there is no extensive system of school choice at the elementary level. Parents may also
choose to send their children to a charter school (a privately run public school) or, if they are willing
and able to pay tuition, a parochial or private school. In theory, the federal No Child Left Behind legis-
lation provides students in failing schools with the option of moving to a higher performing public
school within the same system, but the number of spots actually available to students in districts like
Philadelphia is quite small, and only a fraction of the eligible students actually take advantage of this
option each year (Weissglass 2004).
3. In 2000, 22% of households in Center City were families (e.g. comprised of at least two people related
by marriage, birth, or adoption), and 5% of Center City households included children aged under 18.
These data do not capture the rise in the number of Center City families that has occurred in the past
several years (US Census 2000, Table QT-P10, Tracts 1-12, 366).
4. The emphasis on ‘customer service’ meant that district employees were to be more responsive to, and
solicitous of, parents than had traditionally been the case.
5. This represented a major change in district policy. Several of the highest achieving elementary schools
in the city were in Center City, and students from all over the city had long sought admissions into those
Journal of Education Policy 177
schools as a way of escaping low-performing neighborhood schools. Historically, any spots left over
after all students from within the catchment area had enrolled were opened up to students from all over
the city, who participated in a lottery for admissions. Under the new policy, admissions priority was as
follows: (1) catchment area students; (2) students transferring under the federal No Child Left Behind
mandates; (3) students from within Center City; (4) students from the rest of the district.
6. In 2005, the demographics for the School District of Philadelphia as a whole were: 14% White, 65%
African American, 5.5% Asian, and 15% Latino. (www.schoolmatters.com).
7. During the 2004–5 year, 21% of students in Philadelphia attended school outside of the public system
(Pennsylvania Department of Education).
8. As of this writing, the banners have not yet been developed. Other efforts to create a ‘brand’ encom-
passing all Center City schools included the school fair, a website, and regular newsletters. All related
materials were marked by a common CCD logo and characteristic CCSI graphics.
9. Ball, Bowe, and Gewirtz describe the ‘marginal academic or curricular’ differences that often charac-
terize schools with various ‘specificities’ in the United Kingdom, showing that these serve market more
than educational purposes (1995, p. 67). In this case, the impact of a particular ‘signature’ may be even
less significant, since all School District of Philadelphia schools use a standardized curriculum.
10. This new identity did not go uncontested at the school. See Cucchiara (2007) for a discussion of the issue.
11. During the 2005–6 school year, 237 students transferred into Grant from outside of the catchment
area, making up 49% of the student body. Of these students, 71% were African-American, and 64% of
all African-American students at the school were transfers. While a small number (11%) of African-
American transfer students came from schools within the new region, the vast majority came from
other parts of the city. Of students transferring from other regions, 32% (59) came from schools that
had been identified as chronically underachieving and in need of major intervention and served large
numbers of low-income students (School District of Philadelphia 2006b). In addition, a significant
number of transfer students came to Grant under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation; these
were low-performing students whose original schools had failed to meet certain standards and who, as
a result, were entitled to attend a non-failing school.
12. This sample was chosen because it is largely representative of the parents in the study and because these
parents were particularly forthcoming about why and how they came to send their children to Grant.
13. See Ball, Bowe, and Gewirtz (1995) for similar findings on the overlap between independent and elite
public school ‘circuits’.
14. This does not appear to be standard district practice and may have been an effort on the part of the prin-
cipal to exercise control over whether or not transfer students were able to remain in the school.
15. These statistics, which are quite striking, likely overstate somewhat the difficulty students faced attain-
ing admissions to the school. When they were published in local education newspaper, they were criti-
cized because they did not include the number of students who were accepted from waiting lists and
who attained admissions through informal processes (such as social and political connections). Because
the district has not made more accurate statistics available, it is impossible to know exactly what
percentage of applicants is accepted to Grant each year. While these numbers may not be quite accurate,
they nevertheless provide a sense of the large numbers of students applying to Grant and how difficult
it is to attain admissions to the school.
16. It is possible that some students were able to transfer into the schools under processes put into place by
the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.
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