05/07/2013 07:29 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Why We Need Public Boarding Schools

My daughter went to elementary school with a boy named Jerome, one of the brightest kids in the class and now, some 15 years later, sitting in prison serving a long sentence for some sort of violent crime. Jerome lived in a tough neighborhood, had an unstable home, and saw his own father go to prison, but he did not have to follow in his father's footsteps.

My father, a child and adolescent psychologist in Cleveland, treated many young people struggling in school or engaged in disruptive and self-destructive behavior often because of dysfunctional families or friend relationships, and he worked with the juvenile courts to take many children out of terrible home situations and place them in foster care. Fresh out of graduate school, he also worked as a psychologist at a boarding school for delinquent boys, a model that we need to make available not just for misbehaving youth, but also for those who simply need a stable place to live.

Unstable living situations can jeopardize any child's ability to learn. In Minneapolis, for example, 9 percent of its school children - more than 11,000 students - endured homelessness at some point during the year. And research shows that the performance of students suffers every time they move; two moves in a year, an educational colleague of mine has observed, and children essentially lose that year of schooling.

Stable housing and safe neighborhoods, in other words, matter as much as good teaching and supportive schools in the education of our kids. The educational community knows this and the government has begun to respond, with more states appropriating money for affordable housing and with the federal government requiring that states fund the busing of homeless students to their original schools.

I think about Jerome, though, when I read about these well-intentioned and needed initiatives by the government. In his case and in so many others, keeping these kids in severely dysfunctional families or transporting them to school from a homeless shelter or from living on the streets does not seem like a successful strategy. Affordable housing and school busing can do little to counter a disruptive family life or a dangerous neighborhood.

We need an alternative: public boarding schools. A few states -- Maryland, Ohio, Florida -- and Washington D.C. now allow "SEED schools" -- public boarding schools for at-risk youth -- operated by the SEED Foundation. And students have performed very well in these schools, with as many as 98 percent attending college upon graduation. So why hasn't this become as widespread as it is, for example, in Port au Prince, Haiti? There, faculty and students in my college have designed and helped communities build public boarding schools for the large numbers of children who lost their parents during the earth quake. If Haiti can do this, why can't the U.S.?

Resistance may partly come from the horror stories we have all heard about public orphanages. My grandfather, who spent several years in one before being adopted, recalled the orphanage director putting the older boys in charge of the younger ones and beating the former if the latter misbehaved. But I suspect ideology and economics also help explain why public boarding schools have yet to catch on in America.

The ideology rests on the reasonable belief, one that I often heard from my father, that children generally do better in family settings than in institutional ones, but when the family or neighborhood settings have become so toxic to children that it puts them at risk, a boarding school sure beats a jail cell.

Which raises the economic issue. The U.S. has a long tradition of private boarding schools that provide mostly wealthy children an excellent education and a social setting that enables them to flourish. The cost of such schools, generally much higher than the per-student cost of public education, makes the public boarding idea seem prohibitively expensive.

The annual cost of room and board at a boarding school, however, averages roughly half that of incarceration ($11,000 versus $22,000) and when we include the indirect benefits of having the Jerome's of our society as productive citizens rather than incarcerated criminals, the economic -- and moral -- case for public boarding schools becomes very compelling.

The political case for such schools also seems convincing. While those on the political right might see them as an example of the "nanny state," public boarding schools would help us reach goals that people across the political spectrum should like: reducing the cost of government burdened with the highest percentage of incarcerated people in the developed world, closing the educational achievement gap that makes the U.S. less economically competitive, and increasing the number of productive, tax-paying citizens at a time when we need as many such people as possible.

As I think about Jerome as that elementary school student, so eager and obviously excited to learn, I wonder what I might have done differently then had I known what I do now about where his life has gone. If his school -- or at least one nearby -- had offered him room and board so that he could have escaped his disruptive home life to focus on his studies, I know he would be in a different -- and much less costly -- place than he is now. How many more Jerome's do we need to lose before every state acts?

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.