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High Poverty Schools can be High Performing

Public schools are responsible for educating all students; however, in poor and minority communities, they often don’t succeed. Students in high-poverty schools face great challenges, most notably a severe lack of funding and resources compared to their wealthier counterparts. Because schools are funded through a combination of local, state, and federal funds, not every school allocates the same amount of spending to each student. Throughout the country, high poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than wealthier districts, resulting in lower access to resources such as individual computers, guidance counselors, and teacher helpers. Furthermore, students living in poverty also experience physical and psychological stressors such as substandard environmental conditions, poor housing, and residential turnover. Additionally, students in high poverty schools are more often than not Black and Hispanic. In almost all major cities Black and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their class is low-income. While poor and minority students wait for the government and politicians to increase their funding and provide more materials, some schools have taken it upon themselves to improve. It is difficult for poor and minority students to succeed, but it is not impossible. High poverty high performing (HP/HP) schools have victoriously combatted the challenges of educating in high poverty and minority communities. They were able to succeed because they deployed strategies such as having effective and collaborative leadership, setting high expectations, and developing valuable relationships within their communities.

Leadership is a strong indicator of a school’s success or failure. The study Successful Leadership in Three High-Poverty Urban Elementary Schools by Stephen L. Jacobson et al. observed three principals who had different personal leadership styles but were each able to improve their schools by establishing a safe, nurturing environment for children and adults, setting high expectations, and holding students, faculty, and parents accountable for meeting those expectations. By pursuing  these strategies, each of the three schools studied showed significant academic improvement. Costello Elementary School improved in ELA from 49 percent to 70 percent mastery in one year. A teacher remarked that leadership has made a key difference in student educational outcomes: “The expectation that every student here can learn and every student will learn no matter what, that’s what’s made a tremendous difference.” Similarly, at Fraser Academy test scores improved in every area except in 8th grade ELA from 1998 to 2003 after a strong principal was installed. The principal made it a priority to involve parents, modelled the behaviours she expected towards students, teachers, and parents, and established a presence in the hallways and classrooms. This type of leadership had not been present at Fraser before, hence, students, faculty, and parents were hesitant at first. However, these changes proved successful, which in turn changed the school’s culture allowing for academic improvement. William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Bridges’s book Turning High Poverty Schools into High Performing Schools similarly demonstrates the impact of strong leadership on educational outcomes. Parrett and Bridges studied high poverty high performing (HP/HP) schools across the country that were recognized for their significant and sustained academic achievement and concluded that the most critical component of success is leadership. The leaders were often principals and small groups of teachers. When those leaders were collaborative, a supportive environment that helped foster an intentional focus on improving learning was established. As a result, academic achievement improved and the achievement gaps began to close. Furthermore, in the report Inside the Black Box of High Performing High Poverty Schools where eight high performing HP/HP schools in Kentucky were observed, researchers found that the most successful leadership occurred when faculty and staff worked together to make key decisions and provided input on issues. The collaborative effort allowed for greater teacher involvement in hiring and in making instructional decisions. Because faculty and staff equally contributed to important administrative decisions, teachers and students alike had much more productive and collaborative work environments. Hence, leadership strategies can vary but certain approaches have been found to be the most successful to teaching in high poverty communities. Implementing these strategies has boosted academic success when schools don’t have enough funding and resources.  

Setting high expectations and believing in students regardless of income and race or ethnic has proven effective in HP/HP schools. At North Godwin Elementary School, the results of effective leadership and high expectations have been incredible. In 2014, 92.2 percent of North Godwin fourth-graders scored proficient in reading on the MEAP test while 65.5 percent of third and fourth-graders were proficient in both reading and math: scores were 32.2 percent and 27 percent higher than the state average, respectively. The school’s test scores are on par with some of the most affluent districts. One of the biggest reasons North Godwin, a school where the majority of students are low-income, has achieved those scores is because faculty and staff don’t let a student’s financial situation define their education. As Kelly Comper, a second grade teacher noted, “We know our children go through tough times, and we empathize for them, but we don’t let that stop them. We hold them to high expectations.” Similarity, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a principal who has transformed three failing schools into successes, shared in her TED talk “How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard” how challenging and believing in her students helped lift up a school. While she was principal of a high school in North Philadelphia she deployed a motto that challenged students to solve their own problems and trusted that they could. She set a confident tone which in turn motivated her students to push and believe in themselves. Because of Cliatt-Wayman’s motto and her students’ hard work, the school’s scores rose by 171 points in algebra and 107 in literature in a single year. North Godwin and Cliatt-Wayman demonstrate the power that comes from setting high expectations and believing in students, regardless of income. By believing in and pushing students many educators can make school a positive experience for thousands while increasing academic success. 

HP/HP schools have built relationships of respect and understanding, allowing them to foster student success. When teachers respect their students and students respect their teachers, educational outcomes are better. These relationships can go further than the classroom; for example, a grandmother at one of the Kentucky schools in Inside the Black Box of High Performing High Poverty Schools received help from the faculty to deal with a tragedy. When teachers listen to, advise, and encourage students, the effects of poverty can be combated. Students living in poverty often suffer from chronic stress, which has negative consequences on brain development and cognitive performance. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has increased stress for many students living in poverty because they have to spend more time at home, the place where their suffering and stress often originates. When teachers open themselves up to learn about their students, especially those living in poverty, they give students a place to go and share what they are struggling with. Some strategies that have helped build relationships are establishing advisory programs, creating smaller learning environments, and encouraging participation in extracurriculars. These strategies help students interact more with their teachers outside of the classroom, which in turn builds trust and confidence. This outlet allows students to relieve the stress and suffering they experience on a daily basis. 

The American public school system is in dire need of improvement, especially in terms of funding schemes. However, it is clear that various high-poverty schools have implemented effective leadership, set high expectations, and fostered caring relationships, all of which have helped improve their performance. While thousands of students wait for Congress, the Department of Education, and other policymakers to improve public schools on a macro-level, there are ways to improve them on a micro-level. The strategies that have worked for HP/HP schools should be implemented until significant systemic change is made. Education is too important to wait on politics and bureaucracy.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Fred Leaders)