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Time to Focus on Poverty in Schools: An Urgent Call

One in five school-age children live in poverty, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That means that for every four students, there’s one who may not have enough food to eat, clothes to keep warm, or internet access to learn. Each of these is something most of us take for granted.

Poverty is a serious threat.

So how do high-poverty schools deal with these challenges? Faced with limited resources, and a population of students who are often more legitimately concerned about where they’re going to eat their next meal than how to complete their next homework assignment, it’s understandable that many school leaders feel like they are fighting an uphill battle.

But there is hope. Authors and school improvement experts William Parrett and Kathleen Budge suggest the solution starts up front, with stronger relationships. Together they’ve done a lot of research into what it takes to transform a high-poverty school into a high-performing one. In nearly every instance, they’ve found that trust is absolutely vital. Trust between students and teachers. Trust between parents and schools. Trust in the community. Everywhere.

Or, as Parrett and Budge put it in Edutopia recently: “Leaders in high-performing, high-poverty (HP/HP) schools continually look for ways to provide opportunities for involvement and to gain back their [parents’] trust.”

In the article, Parrett and Budge offer several ways to improve trust between schools and parents.

Here are just a few:

Provide services beyond academics
Full-service, or so-called community schools, understand that distractions at home can impede a student’s success at school. If a child has to worry about basic needs, such as food, medicine, or basic hygiene, it’s reasonable to assume why they might struggle in school.

For schools with high instances of poverty, providing these services to students and their families not only frees students to concentrate on their lessons, it also builds trust and encourages parents and guardians to take a more active role in their children’s schooling.

“Families living in poverty often work multiple jobs, may have limited English language skills, and in some cases may have had few positive experiences with their children’s teachers or schools,” write Parrett and Budge. When schools provide or coordinate the delivery of these essential services, they have a better shot at reversing this trend.

Meet parents where they are
Families who can’t make school meetings due to work schedules, disabilities, language barriers, or other issues, may feel isolated from their kids’ experiences at school. When parents can’t get to you, consider going to them.

One suggestion is to conduct mandatory home visits. Mason County School District in Kentucky has committed to having a teacher or staff member visit every student’s home at least once per year.

The result? A shrinking achievement gap, less disciplinary actions, and improved attendance.

If you can’t get to parents physically, make sure you keep other lines of communication open and on. Phone calls, emails, social media, online forums, a feedback form on your website—every option counts.

Help parents help their kids
Supportive, well-informed parents are critical to student success. We all know that. But too many schools fail to provide parents with the training and resources they need to help their children succeed in school.

One idea is to create parent learning academies that teach English to parents. Another is to provide GED services to help parents support their families. You might even consider inviting parents into the classroom, so they can understand what their students are learning and develop their own ways to support them.

Make your schools home base
Your schools should be a safe place for students and families to gather, both during and after school.

Parrett and Budge suggest offering your school up as a place for activities beyond the academic. Whether it’s early childhood programs, GED-training courses, sports and extracurricular clubs, or other community-based activities, make your school a central hub in the lives of students and their families.

What steps are you taking to engage disadvantaged students and their families to improve learning? Tell us in the comments.

Want to know the types of services that parents and students in your community would like or could benefit from next year? A strong community survey is a great place to start that conversation.