There are some who suggest that a school that has a high number of economically disadvantaged students can’t be an academically high-performing school. Implicit in their message is that “poor kids can’t learn.” As a new school year begins it’s important to remind ourselves that that view is wrong.
This year, CABL has spent a great deal of time exploring that issue, and what we found is encouraging to say the least.
Of schools in Louisiana that earned a letter grade in 2016-17, 644 of them had 75-percent or more of their students classified as economically disadvantaged. That is considered a “high-poverty” school. Of those schools, 124 received a school letter grade of A or B. These are schools that in many cases faced tremendous challenges, but still found ways to help their students succeed.
In St. Landry Parish, 87-percent of the students at Palmetto Elementary are considered economically disadvantaged. Yet their most recent school performance score was an A. “Every child can learn,” says principal Kellie Rabalais. “My teachers are phenomenal and we all work together in what’s in the best interest of the child.”
One school that has gotten a lot of attention recently is Marie Riviere Elementary in Jefferson Parish. It received a strong B grade despite the fact that 83-percent of its students are disadvantaged and 36-percent are classified as “limited English proficient.” To principal John Starr, the key to success is simple. “The secret is establishing high expectations for your students and targeting each student individually to figure out how to help them achieve their goals.”
To be clear, there is no question that schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students often face daunting challenges. Many times there are problems at home, some kids come to school hungry, and others are dealing with trauma or mental health issues. Things like this can be difficult to deal with. The point is that many of our schools have found ways to do it.
The common denominators? One is strong school leadership shared by principals, teachers, and staff. Also key are things like setting high expectations for all students and cultivating real and caring relationships with them.
“We’ve got students who are really, really hurting,” says Union Parish High School principal David Gray. “A big adjustment, I think, for a lot of teachers is that poverty is a mindset. It’s not just about being without money.” Understanding that mindset and knowing the situations from which students come make it easier for teachers to meet students where they are and help them succeed.
It is important that stories like these are told. Sadly, it has been far too easy for policy makers and some elected officials to write off our poorest students as kids that just can’t succeed. That’s a lame excuse and it hurts our children. Fortunately, we have many hundreds of committed and passionate educators who believe in their students and are making a positive difference in the lives of thousands of kids.
Every child can learn and that’s being demonstrated every day in great schools across our state.