Saturday, September 18, 1999

Program built on value of teacher as neighbor




BY KRISTA RAMSEY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They exist in every American city— troubled neighborhoods with high poverty and crime rates, little sense of community, seemingly few resources and little chance for redemption.

        In some places, the “fix” has emphasized what must be drained out of these neighborhoods — drugs, gangs, clusters of low-income housing. But a new federal program concentrates on what must be put back in.

        People. To be specific, teachers.

        This month, the department of Housing and Urban Development expects to unveil its Teacher Next Door program. Its goal is to encourage more teachers in urban school districts to live in the neighborhoods where they work. It hopes to entice them by offering them HUD homes at half their appraised price. The teachers must live in the home as their sole residence for at least three years.

        The program follows a similar one for police officers, called Officer Next Door, which led 2,700 law enforcement officers to become homeowners in inner-city neighborhoods. HUD says in its second year the program has seen triple the response expected and has had a powerful effect on the neighborhoods where the officers live.

The first to help
        Exactly how many homes may be available to Cincinnati teachers is yet to be determined. Local HUD officials have petitioned the federal government to include a vast area — parts of nine neighborhoods — in the program, and are awaiting a decision.

        In the meantime, the initiative should be a flattering recognition of all teachers' contributions to their communities. For, while it is a new program, it is built on an old and reliable principle: Things change when a teacher is around.

        Although less true today, in the past, teachers were not a highly mobile group. They were far more likely than other professionals to work in or near the neighborhood in which they had grown up, and to live where they worked.

        From those demographics, many of us American kids benefited greatly. We grew up seeing our teachers at the grocery store, the dentist's office, our church or synagogue, the Dairy Queen. After we got over the initial shock that they indeed had a life outside the classroom, we were better off for the contact.

        We saw them live their words. Teachers, like major-league ballplayers, don't have to be role models. But they are. We saw our teachers raise money for library expansions, start conservation projects, coach summertime sports, teach Sunday School. Usually, their pet projects had something to do with kids or learning. It was always rather grand that they couldn't seem to get enough of us.

        And should some tragedy occur in the community — a fire, death, serious illness — our teachers were the first to help. Their influence on our lives and in our families was already so personal and profound that it was natural to accept their assistance. When they stopped by, no matter what the calamity, we all felt reassured.

Raising esteem
        So HUD is on to something here. Having your teacher live down the street — bumping into him at the library, knowing that he sits on a local board — raises the esteem of the neighborhood. Things seem safer when teachers are around, and more hopeful.

        HUD spokesman Lamar Wooley says the program allows teachers to better understand the children and families in the neighborhood, and to be understood by them. HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo says it will encourage teachers to mentor their students in after-school hours.

        These are wonderful opportunities. They should remain that, and not be turned into burdens. We should appreciate the difference teachers make in our communities — and reward it — without taking it for granted.

        So we'll all hope teachers move in on our street. And we'll try not to overload them. It's not that we expect them to save our neighborhood, our city or our world. It's just that, with our help, we think they can.

        Krista Ramsey's column appears on Saturdays. Write her at 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati 45202, or e-mail her at krista_ramsey@hotmail.com

        RAMSEY ARCHIVE