Few can deny that, in school systems across the country, poverty remains one of the largest and most impenetrable barriers to student learning. And this makes intuitive sense; it’s hard to expect students to focus and succeed in academic work while also dealing with the stress, hunger, and fatigue of living in poverty. A substantive body of research has found that poor health conditions associated with low socioeconomic status — like hunger, malnutrition, and stress — inhibit cognitive development from an early age. Additionally, research suggests that growing up with an unstable or impoverished home environment can affect the development of positive emotional and social responses, which can translate into behavior problems in the classroom. What’s more, the problem has been growing over the past few decades: the achievement gap in test scores between low-income students and high-income students has grown about 40 percent, surpassing the achievement gap between black and white students. The socioeconomic gaps in other indicators of academic progress, like college enrollment and completion, have also grown.
And yet, most education policymakers seem to ignore the influence of poverty on student learning. The prevalent mode of thought among most policymakers is that schools, already often underfunded and unable to support some supplemental services, cannot hope to alleviate poverty in their communities, and thus should focus on reforms within the school that they can directly control, like curriculum and teaching. However, it would be unrealistic to expect that school-based reforms alone can completely mitigate the chronic health and learning challenges associated with poverty. Only by addressing the main root of the socioeconomic achievement gap — poverty — can schools ever hope to bridge the divide between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds.
Combating student poverty in education policy is no new idea. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, was part of the President’s “War on Poverty,” and actively sought to improve the education of low-income students. It established Title I funding of one billion dollars per year to school districts with high concentrations of low-income families. Even before that, the federal government played a hand in mitigating economic inequality through the National School Lunch Act in 1946, which established free and reduced-price lunch for low income students.
Only in recent history has the focus in education shifted away from poverty. A survey of recent national education policy demonstrates just how often today’s lawmakers ignore the influence of poverty on academic achievement. In the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind emphasized test-based accountability and expected students and schools, regardless of district demographics, to rise and meet federal expectations. Several years later, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program focused on innovation, educator effectiveness, common standards, and school turn-around, but still, these reforms largely targeted factors in the classroom that states and districts could directly control. The Common Core Standards, which are not federally mandated, similarly focus on standards-based accountability and curriculum reform. The new federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — makes some promising changes by expanding funding for preschool development, but otherwise the focus of the new law is largely on returning authority in testing and teacher evaluation to the states. All of these efforts are well intentioned, and some have arguably improved some aspects of American public education, but still they largely ignore the need to address student poverty.
So how can schools combat the negative impacts of poverty on students’ well being and academic performance? One place to start would be to build upon schools’ unique positions as central institutions in a community, in what New Zealand educational research Tom Haig calls a ‘community hub approach’ and what other reformers call ‘full-service community schooling.’ In an article in Educational Philosophy and Practice, Haig proposes that schools should adopt a range of functions that establish themselves as social centers in their neighborhoods. Such ‘community hubs’ could include childcare services, community access to facilities and shelter, health services, and parental support. The central idea behind this approach is that, as social centers, schools can work with members of the community to provide essential services other than just child education in order to create a supportive community that many impoverished neighborhoods lack.
In a handful of districts in the United States, some schools have adopted the full-service community school model by implementing school-based programs that actively fight student poverty and engage the community. The district of Jennings, Missouri — a small city next to Ferguson where approximately 90 percent of student are eligible for free or reduced price meals — is a prime example of such a district. Under the leadership of Superintendent Tiffany Anderson, the district partnered with local residents and businesses to open up food pantries in its schools, which now serve 200-400 families in the community. They also partnered with Washington University in St. Louis to open a health clinic that offers basic health services like vaccinations and physicals as well as mental health counseling specifically geared toward environment-based trauma. The district also took creative measures to provide shelter for its neediest students, converting unused central office space into a foster home for homeless students. Jennings’ focus on addressing student poverty extends to more to than just services: the district has also emphasized equity training among its educators to dismantle racism and teach educators how to deal with student trauma.
Three and a half years in, the efforts seem to be working. In 2012, the district scored 57 percent on state education standards, very close to loosing state accreditation, and was one of the lowest performing districts in Missouri. Over the past two years, however, the accreditation rating has risen significantly, to 78 percent in 2014 then to 81 percent in 2015. A great deal of this improvement can be attributed to the increase in the school’s graduation rate, which now stands at 92 percent, and its successful college and career placement, with 78 percent of graduates going on to college or the military. Jennings students still score low in English and math proficiency and struggle to score well on tests like the ACT or SAT, but still, significant progress has been made.
Jennings is not alone its innovative solutions to fight student poverty. The town of Vancouver, Washington has implemented similar programs with similar results. In 2008, leaders in the school district realized that the population demographics of Vancouver were changing as some job providers left the city and as the growth of neighboring city Portland drove up housing prices in the town. As they predicted, the percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunches rose from 39 to 53. Luckily, the school district had been preparing for this change by opening up family and community resource centers in many of its schools. These centers contain a range of services, including food pantries, donated clothing, mental health counseling, family-literacy classes, and mobile dental care vans. Even though the number of students living in poverty has increased over the past few years, the district has seen positive results in the same time: the graduation rate has increased, parental involvement has gone up, and more students from low-income households now enroll in advanced classes.
Admittedly, it’s difficult to tell if the reforms made in these district like Jennings and Vancouver are transferable to other districts with different characteristics. Although it is a largely low-income town, Jennings is a small community with only 3,000 students, so community-based reforms are arguably been easier to implement than in a much larger urban district. Vancouver has a larger student population of 23,000, but it still had the advantage of advanced planning to prepare for its growing population of students from low-income households. Additionally, Vancouver enjoyed new data-driven advances to cut costs and nearly $3.2 million in community contributions.
Much larger school systems with high poverty rates and significant budget deficits may have a much more difficult time finding the resources to engage the community and implement similar reforms, never mind raise enough funds to initiate full-service programming. This is where federal and state governments should step in to provide funds to larger, poorer districts that may be unable to start similar programs running on their own. And in fact, the federal government has already introduced two grant programs that, although limited in scope, are a step in the right direction: Promise Neighborhoods and Full-Service Community Schools.
Promise Neighborhoods is a Department of Education initiative that awards federal money to nonprofit organizations that promote educational resources specifically in distressed communities. The initiative was intended to support organizations similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone, a nonprofit organization in Harlem that aims to break conditions of chronic poverty by providing comprehensive health and educational services. With this program, the money is not award to schools or districts, but rather community organizations that partner with the local schools to provide services. The Full-Service Community Schools program, in contrast, provides grants directly to local districts to transform their struggling schools into full-service community schools. Together, these two grant programs can give troubled communities that extra initiative to implement much-needed reforms that specifically target student poverty.
Nonetheless, these programs are severely limited in scope. From 2010 to 2014, Promise Neighborhoods awarded a total of about $250 million to a total of 58 organizations across the country, but the money has since been discontinued. The Full-Service Community Schools program is much smaller, with $10 million being awarded since each year since 2010. Compare both of these figures with the roughly $40 billion allocated to the Department of Education’s elementary and secondary programs each year. Clearly, these programs do not constitute a major priority in federal education spending.
The federal government should not be the only level of government promoting community schooling, and luckily a handful of states have passed measures supporting the development of community schools. A legislative review by the Coalition for Community Schools identified a total of nine states and the District of Columbia as having passed laws that promote the community schooling model. Notable state efforts include New York State’s Community Schools Initiative, which allocated $15 million to established 30 community schools across the state, and Minnesota, which authorized the state commissioner of education to provide $100,000 annually to schools that meet criteria for full-service community schools. Such efforts constitute a step in the right direction, but still they are limited to only a nine states, and it is unlikely that all of the other forty-one states will display a similar commitment in the near future.
Moving forward, education policymakers at all levels should prioritize poverty-targeted programs outlined by the full-service school/community hub model, as they have ignored the impact of poverty on student learning for far too long. At the local level, strong leadership and a committed community, as demonstrated in Jennings and Vancouver, is crucial to the success of such reforms. At the federal and state level, more money and support needs to be directed towards programs that directly address poverty such as Promise Neighborhoods, the Full-Service Community Schools program, and New York’s Community Schools Initiative. If stakeholders in communities across the country work together with the support of increased federal and state initiatives, hopefully the unsettling achievement gap between low-income and high-income students will start to narrow. Schools alone may never be able to overcome all the negative effects that come from socioeconomic stress, but they should at least take whatever steps they can to try to mitigate such challenges.