High-poverty schools can be high achieving

Demographics are not destiny in student achievement, according to an expert who spoke at NSBA’s pre-conference session on Friday called “Disrupting Poverty: Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools.”

William Parrett, director of the Center for School Improvement and Policy Studies at Boise State University, studies schools that have shown strong – sometimes phenomenal – results despite having high percentages of students receiving free or reduced-price meals. He enumerated a set of strategies that he said will work in any school. The most fundamental is for adults to have the expectation that all students can succeed regardless of their home environment and family wealth.

Wait a minute, you may be saying. Poverty is correlated with poor nutrition, family dysfunction and high levels of stress. Schools can only have a limited effect on students who live in poverty, right? That’s what sociologist James Coleman said in a famous government report – in 1966. It contributed to what George W. Bush derided as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Today, the emerging point of view was articulated by schools advocate Kati Haycock in 2010: “Some say we can’t fix education until we fix poverty. It’s actually the exact opposite; we can’t fix poverty until we fix education.”

How? Parrett said school leaders should:

* Ask questions. Are we leveling the playing field for students who live in poverty? One key is extra help, including extended school day or year, small-group or individual tutoring, as well as self-paced interventions using technology.

* Rely on data. Use measures of student achievement that everyone in the school, including students, understands and refers to frequently. Grades and homework assignments ought to incorporate the concept of equity. We need to meet students where they are, and then we can see the most progress.

* Build relationships – especially with parents. School staff need a “whatever it takes” attitude, Parrett said. For instance, they are undeterred if parents are unresponsive to outreach attempts. They keep trying with techniques such as home visits. They attract parents to school events by offering food and childcare, and they offer programs parents want such as classes on parenting, English as a Second Language and GED.

And research shows that it’s absolutely essential to get children reading at grade level by third grade.

“We need to focus on the needs of children, not the wants of adults,” Parrett said.

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