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Enriching the lives of students in poverty 

LCFF, ‘future focus’ are among tools that can help

Spring 2014

As a volunteer at a school for children experiencing homelessness, Addie Ellis has heard many stories of children living in unstable and often unsafe conditions. One in particular stays with her, when a preschool girl she worked with regularly began to excitedly relate the events of the night before:

“Last night it was raining, and we were in the tent. My mom was trying to hold me and my brother up because the water kept coming in. And Ms. Addie, there were rats!” the youngster exclaimed.

Unfortunately, stories like this are not uncommon. While this year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, current statistics are stark. Nationally, one of every five public schools was classified as a high-poverty school in 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education—a nearly a 60 percent increase in 10 years. Even more disturbing, poverty is more common among California’s children than in the population as a whole. In 2012, 22.5 percent of the state’s children were living in poverty, almost seven percentage points higher than the state’s poverty rate overall, according to federal data.

However, by all academic measures California schools have continued to improve over the same period. According to those who work in high-poverty schools, the key is school leaders who understand how issues of poverty can affect the children they are trying to reach and develop programs that support students beyond their academic needs. California’s new Local Control Funding Formula may provide more school districts with the resource flexibility to do just that.

Poverty poses education challenges

Poverty has a direct and immediate impact on a student’s basic ability to focus, comprehend and retain information. Elizabeth Sterba, a coordinator of two family resource centers in Sacramento, sees the impact every day.

“No matter how great your teachers are, no matter how comprehensive your curriculum is, [students] cannot learn if their stomach is growling with hunger, if they shivered through the night instead of sleeping because there is no heat in their home or if they are too ashamed of their ‘holey’ shoes to focus in class,” explains Sterba.

Manuel Rubio, director of the Grants and Communications Department in the Sweetwater Union High School District near San Diego, believes schools might not always have a complete picture of these challenges.

Despite their best efforts, he explains, “Schools don’t always know what a student and their family is facing at home. They may have jobs to help support their families or have to help in the care of younger siblings. Simple tasks such as getting to school and getting home can be a challenge for a student dealing with poverty.”

Toxic stress

When a student’s basic needs of food, safety and clothing are a constant source of anxiety and trauma, that stress directly impacts the ability to learn.

Researchers like Nadine Burke-Harris, M.D., are studying the trauma link and discovering connections that have far-reaching consequences for schools. In 2011, Burke-Harris, a San Francisco-based pediatrician, co-founded the Center for Youth Wellness, which provides a holistic approach to improving the health and well-being of children and youth in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where poverty and race present particular challenges. She talked with CSBA about the issue last summer.

“There are certainly lots of different types of trauma that are experienced by school children. These adverse childhood experiences include things like physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, parental mental illness, parental substance dependence, parental incarceration, and parental separation or divorce,” Burke-Harris pointed out. “In our research, if a child had four or more of these adverse childhood experiences, their odds of having learning and behavior problems in school were 32 times as high as a child who had none of these.”

Hunger and learning

It’s easy to understand that a hungry child will find it difficult to focus; a 2007 Georgetown University study was able to quantify that impact. It indicated that youngsters from hungry homes are more often sick, more likely to have ear infections and higher rates of iron deficiency anemia, and they are hospitalized more frequently. (One positive note: The study found that school meal programs improved poor students’ overall educational attainment by a full year, likely because they increased attendance and reduced malnutrition in a child’s early years.)

Responding to increasing need in the community, schools throughout California are expanding meal programs for students in tutoring or after-school care to include breakfast, lunch, after-school snacks and even dinner.

‘Future focus’

Another challenge facing youth in poverty is more abstract. For many families, there is a culture around poverty that impacts not just how much food is in a student’s stomach or if there is heat in the home. Kate Hazarian, a school social worker in the Sacramento area for the past 20 years, believes families in poor neighborhoods find it difficult to cultivate what she calls a “future focus.” For example, in middle- and upper middle-class homes parents plan for college and talk to their children about what they can be when they grow up.

“For families in generational poverty, the focus is often on surviving today’s challenges, and tomorrow is not guaranteed,” Hazarian says. “Education is a long-term investment. Sometimes families don’t have the knowledge, perspective or time to make education a top priority.”

Sterba believes this lack of future focus is a direct consequence of the survival mode in which many families find themselves. When resources are scarce, a family’s energy must be focused on survival and not on middle-class activities like opening and using a savings account, planning for college or even volunteering at school.

“All families love their children and do their best—whether it looks that way to others or not—to guide their children toward success,” explains Sterba. “The tools, time and energy with which they do that, however, can be severely limited by persistent basic needs.”

What works

Sterba believes the first step for all who work on a school campus is to learn what poverty really is and examine their own assumptions and biases. She says this can go a long way in fostering more meaningful relationships with students, parents and families who may be in need of support but don’t know how to ask for it.

Living in a poor community is not a disabling condition, but going to a school with low expectations can be. Students in poverty come to classrooms with a variety of challenges, and the most successful schools address them without lowering the expectations for academic achievement or behavior.

“So often, we assume that kids can’t achieve at a higher level because of the challenges they face at home or in their communities,” warns Hazarian, “and that doesn’t help students.” Instead, she explains, “If we’re able to form a relationship with [the students], seek to know them as human beings and value their perspective, they will work hard to meet the challenges we put before them.”

Recognize strengths

Three years ago Adrian Ruiz, the executive director of the Sacramento-area Youth Development Network, had just finished an activity to help students learn more about their own strengths and how they can be put to good use in their communities. Seeing that one of the students had retreated from the group and was crying, Ruiz approached to ask if he was okay. As the young man composed himself, he said that this is the first time in his 16 years of life that he had ever been told what was right with him versus what was wrong.

“That just made me think to myself, what are we doing by focusing exclusively on their deficits?” Ruiz says now. “What are we doing when we tell young people, ‘Here’s why you’re at risk,’ but we don’t tell them they have the strengths within them to overcome the challenges?”

It’s important to remember that the same difficulties that have the potential to traumatize a child can also help a child build resilience and confidence. With programs like Ruiz’s, many schools are focusing on strengths and building young people’s belief in their ability to be successful at school and in life.

Beamer Elementary in Yolo County’s Woodland Joint Unified School District has embraced a unique way to build on what many districts see as a challenge. Teachers in Beamer’s state-recognized English-Spanish dual immersion program present subjects in both languages, and the school boasts a large group of involved parents from a variety of backgrounds working side by side to support students and strengthen the school.

Woodland District Superintendent Debra LaVoi believes the school succeeds because the dedicated staff “celebrates the diversity of students, honors proficiency in multiple languages and cultures and welcomes the contributions and engagement of families.” Beamer attracts families from beyond the district’s boundaries because parents see the development of multilingual and multicultural skills as an advantage in an increasingly global world.

Engage families

Even when parents cannot be regular volunteers in the classroom, they can strongly impact their child’s learning by setting high expectations at home. Hazarian, the school social worker, believes schools should make every effort to reach out to these parents and give them tools to use at home to support their children.

“All too often we assume they aren’t involved because we don’t see them on our campuses,” she says. “Extend your hand first. When parents know that you value and respect them, they will support your work with their children and hold their children to a higher standard.”

Board members can support a wider spectrum of engagement by expecting staff to seek parent input from all of the communities in the district, not just those who understand how the school system works.

School-community partnerships

Engaging nonprofit service providers, neighborhood groups, service clubs and faith-based organizations can be another effective strategy. While this can be a daunting project for overtasked administrators, building strong relationships with local assets can stretch the resources available for students in need.

The full-service community school movement embodies that approach, bringing health care, mental health and social services to the school campus. Social service nonprofits and government programs that assist families can reach students more easily and make a vital contribution to student success.

The California Department of Education’s Healthy Start grants proved the value of this approach in the 1990s and early 2000s. Long after those initiatives ended, the work continues at school campuses that choose to allocate funds from Title I—and now LCFF—to maintain youth and family resource centers. In the Sacramento City Unified School District, for example, these centers are staffed by a part-time coordinator, a part-time school social worker and several social work interns from the local university. The centers leverage three dollars in resources and in-kind services for every dollar spent.

Make courageous decisions

It takes a special commitment from school leaders to work collaboratively with community organizations and other programs that can provide assistance to families in need. With the pressure to raise test scores, it can be easier and more popular to invest in initiatives that appear to have a more direct impact on academic achievement. Successful school leaders know community partners can make a difference on campus.

Hazarian offers the following advice from her school social work experience to board members: “Even when it seems the majority of your parents or staff may not support a decision, if an action needs to be taken to promote equity and access to programs that open doors for students, be ready to explain your decision-making process and hold the line.”
Asking questions that focus on these issues can also underscore your district’s commitment to serve all students. For example:

  • For every new initiative or when data is shared at a meeting, ask how information is being shared with parents and what parents can do.
  • Ask about your district’s hiring practices. Are you creating pipelines so that adults from your community can enter the teaching profession and be role models to youth who have lived a similar life?
  • Ask staff to describe the challenges their students face outside the classroom. Encourage them to develop partnerships with organizations that can assist with the needs of their students.
  • Be curious about measures that go beyond test scores. How is a campus doing in terms of creating partnerships and engaging families?

Use the LCFF as an opportunity to focus on the unique needs of your students and ask about strength-based services for them—see

School boards are ultimately responsible for creating policies that normalize what happens at the classroom level. They also have the political power to bring people—across departments, agencies and even disciplines—together and set the expectation for a culture of collaboration. Most importantly, they can focus their decision making on equity for all students and use their clout as elected officials to encourage these values throughout the community.

Trinette Marquis-Hobbs is the past president of the California School Public Relations Association and a partner with Syntric Communications in Sacramento.