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Schools Can't Improve Without Support for Low-Income Students

This is part one of a two-part essay.

In my nine years of teaching, I've taught almost equal amounts of times at a high-poverty school and at a low-poverty school. I've watched students go from freshmen to seniors in two very different educational environments. From watching and comparing these two schools, it's become clear to me that a high concentration of poverty can hamper the best intentions and the hardest work from students, educators, and parents.

The differences are best illustrated by how high-poverty and low-poverty schools respond to children in crisis. My high-poverty school had a larger number of children who were facing academic, social, or behavioral challenges. The school's response to these students had two dominant themes: on one hand, most of the teachers, administrators, and student support staff worked passionately to connect with our students and care for their needs, often in isolation. On the other hand, the staff was required to collect data and document our interventions with struggling students to an extent that made the process compliance-driven, and at times unfeeling. The school was required to submit extensive paperwork to show evidence of "due diligence" of a process known as the Student Support Team. All schools in my district are required to extensively document the SST process, but for schools that had a number of students in crisis, the paperwork demands were so overwhelming that only students in the most serious situations were given formal help.

Overall, the institutional response was either nonexistent, or bureaucratic, when it should have been therapeutic. These schools' institutional approach undermined, rather than supported the efforts of individual teachers. For some students, the mixed messages made it hard for them to trust that adults actually wanted to help them. As for me, my experiences left me with the impression that the SST process itself was ineffective. In later years, after I began to work at a low-poverty school, I discovered that I was wrong.

The response to children in crisis at the low-poverty school was different. A low-poverty school translates to a racially diverse environment. Students are constantly interacting with people with different family structures, different religions, and different educational backgrounds. This diversity helps students keep their challenges in perspective, and it also helps them make goals that extend beyond their traditional world-view. High school is rarely an easy time, and students from all economic classes still face serious academic and social challenges. But, for example, a parent experiencing a health issue has a dramatically different effect on a middle-class family than a low-income family. Overall, there were fewer crises that demanded staff intervention. With fewer students in crisis, adults have more time to communicate, plan, and authentically support students who are facing challenges in or outside of the classroom. We were able to move beyond the paperwork to thoughtfully consider the best ways to help individual students. In a school with a middle-class majority, resources to help kids are still strained, but struggling students get more individual attention and in my experience a higher number of them were able to face and overcome their obstacles to success.

I believe that the contrast between these schools has important lessons for school leaders and educators who are trying to increase student achievement. Making a commitment to student support requires that education leaders confront two truths.

The first is that schools need more staff to adequately support students' needs. Guidance counselors, school resource officers, school psychiatrists, nurses, and school breakfast and lunch programs play an important role in student success, and investing in these programs will help our students thrive.

The second, more uncomfortable truth is that our nation has completely failed to desegregate our schools, and that an investment in student support is much more likely to yield good results if students attend a socio-economically diverse school, where fewer students are in crisis and they can get more individual attention.

We can't address failing schools without meaningfully addressing the needs of our struggling students. As Congress is reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (NCLB) the main legislative focus has been on college- and career-ready standards, assessment, and accountability for school leaders and teachers. Yet, almost unacknowledged is the fact that students are already struggling academically, and there's not enough in the plan about formally supporting students to meet these newer higher standards. ESEA reauthorization also lacks a diligent effort to break up the concentrations of poverty that have made educational progress difficult at many of our nation's schools.

In the last five years, education policy initiatives have led to changes in classroom instructional strategies, assessment, state standards, and teacher evaluation. These recent shifts need to be complemented with a renewed focus on student support and racial and socio-economic integration. I believe this because for nine years I've seen students from different racial and economic backgrounds struggle, succeed, and also fail. As a U.S. history teacher, I am aware of the history of our country's failed attempt at desegregation. Desegregation legislation would be difficult and perhaps disastrous at a national level, given the fact that regions with different histories and geographies need different solutions. However, I'm encouraged that Maryland state legislators are beginning to approach the topic of socio-economically diverse schools with a new bill, MD 683, that aims to create a Next Generation School model with a minimum of 35 percent and a maximum of 55 percent of low-income students per school. This model addresses socio-economic diversity head on, and makes integration a priority in a way that is hasn't been for a very long time.

My nine years of working with struggling students have been inspiring, frustrating, and fulfilling. My experiences have led me to believe that racially and economically integrated schools are an important but overlooked opportunity to address our students' holistic needs and improve our educational system. It's not just that I know this from my work and feel it in my gut—educational research supports this idea as well. The second part of this essay will examine the compelling data that confirm that racially and economically integrated schools are good public policy, and that they need to be a part of educational solutions for the next generation of children.

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