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Making sure poverty ≠ destiny

5 min read

Voice of the Educator

Making the extraordinary ordinary is an original  SmartBlog on Education content series. The series explores the possibilities and challenges of making the extraordinary ordinary. It features stories of hope and possibility, of teachers, principals, schools and districts doing extraordinary things with increased regularity, creating a different kind of momentum in public education.

There is a new majority in our nation’s public schools. Recent data from the Southern Education Foundation reveal 51% of all students are eligible for free or reduced lunch — schools’ basic benchmark of low-income status. Combined with the recent release of “Ending Child Poverty Now” from the Children’s Defense Fund, the crisis is stark. What can educators do?

Our national rhetoric is that if you work hard and study hard, success will follow. We go into education and youth services because of a deep belief that we can make a difference by helping children learn, think, try and achieve. And yet these numbers challenge our sense of efficacy and possibility.

We know effective schools and programs from early childhood to college can make a real difference for children. Recently, New York City has used the Where Are They Now reports to understand how students in different schools succeed over time. Built out of a data sharing agreement between the City University of New York and the NYC Department of Education, these reports were the first of their kind to give educators an accurate picture of what happens for their graduates when they walk off the stage, diplomas in hand, and into their futures. What becomes clear as you look at the data is that students from some schools take dramatic strides. And others do not. The reports were so useful that middle schools, elementary schools and NYC community-based programs demanded them as well. According to the NYC Department of Education, the most recent reports will be made public this spring.

And we know it is possible because we have seen successful programs. What is interesting is that they don’t follow one model. And yet, there seem to be some important commonalities:

  1. Young people like being there. They see themselves as valued and appreciated. They create deep personal relationships with other young people and adults. They know they are part of a strong community and have a place to grow safely and to take on big challenges.
  2. Rigorous academic work is central to the program. Ranging from English and mathematics to chess and dance, there is a rigorous approach to learning that builds core skills and critical thinking as well as expanding students’ sense of possibility and efficacy.
  3. The adults continue to learn as much as the students. To be a strong healthy learning environment for children, it must be one for adults as well.   In effective schools and programs, adults continue to improve their practice to reach more children more effectively.

There are other components, but I would suggest that these three are at the core of what you see in successful classrooms, schools and programs. It plays out every day in powerful moments. At WHEELS Academy in Washington Heights, they have a community parade as students submit their college applications. At an elementary school in Brooklyn, the students are the ones who do the talking and present their work at parent teacher conferences rather than the adults just talking to each other.  In the Liberty Leads program at Bank Street you can walk around every afternoon and see young people excited, engaged, connected and hopeful. While these and other stories are powerful, they are far too rare.

This must change. As the late Ron Edmonds said 35 years ago, if one school can succeed with children who face economic disadvantage, then there are no excuses for failure. As educators, we must look at why those differences exist — without excuses or rationalizations or blame. Whether as policy makers, administrators or teachers, if others are succeeding where we are not, we need to look at it, celebrate it, learn from it and replicate it. We must be deeply disciplined and unrelenting in this work. We can do better. We must all be learners in the quest to take on the challenges of poverty and inequity.

And, we must join our voices in a broader conversation about the access to privilege that money buys. It is true that those privileges are not the only ones that matter: communities and families bring enormous strengths that have enabled deep and vibrant relationships, connection and success in the face of enormous challenge. That said, we live in a society where there are staggering barriers to the most basic human needs and few see that impact more clearly than our educators. And they see it on the faces of our children.

To transform our schools, we must be unrelenting in both arenas. We must keep learning and improving to reach all children and unflinchingly challenge the barriers and reverse the pattern of disinvestment in America. There remain no excuses.

Josh Thomases is dean of Innovation, Policy & Research at Bank Street College.

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