While he was out biking in his southeast side neighborhood, Joe Mount came across a troubling scene: Two boys were throwing small rocks at a young girl.
He immediately recognized her from the honors English class he had taught at Emma Donnan Middle School. He quickly intervened.
He said he wouldn’t have been there to settle the squabble if he weren’t living nearby, three blocks away in a neighborhood right off Garfield Park. Mount, 24, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, asked to be placed in the city during his stint with Teach for America and knew he wanted to live close to Donnan.
“You get a sense of ownership and involvement with your students that you wouldn’t get if you lived 20 minutes south,” Mount said.
For years, Indianapolis and cities across the country have grappled with how to attract new teachers to the classroom and encourage them to stay. Offering early career educators — particularly those in inner cities — housing that they can afford on their teacher salaries and near their schools could solve two problems: bolster relationships between teachers and students and quell persistent teaching shortages.
To address those challenges, several Indianapolis community groups unveiled a proposal to create a “teacher village” in the center city at an open house Tuesday night. The partnership among the city of Indianapolis; Near East Area Renewal, a nonprofit community developer; and Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that helps people prepare to buy homes, would result in 20 or more homes in the 800 to 900 block of North Rural Street, a part of town known as St. Clair Place. The homes would be priced starting around $130,000, but several would be available as rentals.
NEAR anticipates the first homes would be available in May 2018. And although rules around the project’s funding say they must be open to any potential buyer, NEAR wants to market the homes heavily to teachers in Indianapolis Public Schools and inner-city charter schools.
John Franklin Hay, executive director for NEAR, said the project coincides with a larger effort to revitalize the near-east side, where crime and poverty rates are high. But redevelopment is changing the area, with new and rehabbed homes popping up within blocks of abandoned houses.
“We were challenged by Indianapolis Public Schools and Teach Plus and by the city of Indianapolis about a year and a half ago to begin developing a teacher village,” Hay said. “Our intention from the very beginning … was to develop housing and do our revitalizing of St. Clair Place. It would be a mixed-income neighborhood that would be more diverse than when we started.”
The near-east side is home to more than a dozen public and private schools, including 10 in IPS. Teach Plus Indiana, part of a national organization that trains teachers to advocate for policy, researched problems teachers face when trying to find housing. Typically, they found, the houses near their schools are far too expensive even though downtown housing is booming in the city — since 2010, 50 new complexes have been built, and most charge $1,300 per month or more. According to a March 2017 article in Forbes, average rent in Indianapolis is $806.
“The majority of residents within these complexes make $80,000 per year or higher,” the policy brief states. “Given that Indianapolis Public Schools starting salary is half of that, few teachers, if any, can afford to live within the Center Township. Of the teachers who do choose to live within the limits of Circle City, they must sacrifice either safety or savings.”
The problem is not unique to Indianapolis. A report out of New York University cites research showing students benefit from building closer relationships with teachers, particularly those in high-poverty urban schools. Those effects can come later in life, but they also can be as immediate as math achievement over the course of a school year. Living in the community they teach, argues Etta Hollins, a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor, leads to a much deeper understanding of students and the support they need.
Nor is the desire to live and work in the same community unique to teachers. Cities across the country have taken a variety of measures — from restricting where civil servants can live to building housing specifically for police officers, firefighters, sanitation workers and other municipal employees — to place their workforce closer to their jobs.
Other cities across the country, including Philadelphia and Baltimore, have seen success with such models for teachers — for instance, the Philadelphia teacher village was fully rented out six months before it was finished, and district-subsidized housing in Santa Clara, California, has a 30-person waiting list, the Teach Plus policy brief states.
The open house attracted about 30 interested educators. They offered ideas about what amenities were important to them in their homes and a neighborhood, including being close to grocery stores, restaurants and fitness centers as well as having parking, outdoor lighting and storage space.
Many also emphasized safety, which NEAR said it is already addressing. Often, high-poverty urban centers where schools are located have more crime than surrounding suburbs. Every teacher village home would come with a security system, and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department has installed surveillance in the area.
The teachers also added that some kind of incentive from their schools or district — whether that’s down-payment assistance, longer-term contracts or salary bonuses — would also encourage them to seek out permanent housing in the teacher village.
While some teachers might prefer separating their personal and professional communities, teachers like Mount said he considered himself lucky to be able to live near where he worked. His school, Donnan Middle School, is 43 percent white and 37 percent black and is located in a fairly high-poverty area southeast of the city.
Once he relocated, he said, he regularly walked his dog around his neighborhood, occasionally stopping to chat with students he ran into at a local convenience store where they bought snacks after school. He also stopped driving to work each day, preferring instead to bike.
“The kids immediately picked up on that,” he said, laughing. “That’s something weird and novel … you start getting a reputation in other grades just with that.”
Mount said moving to the neighborhood surrounding his school changed so much about how he interacted with his students, and he’s grateful he lucked into an affordable option. He said he hopes other teachers can have that same opportunity someday.
“It was incredibly important to be able to point to the street behind the school and say, ‘I live on that street. I know what’s going on,’” he said. “I lived in that area, I was their neighbor … it was everything.”