There are no silver bullet solutions to supporting academic success for students experiencing poverty. It is not a question of teachers simply working harder or teaching with specialty techniques designed for poor students.
This is because poverty is not a cultural phenomenon: It is a systemic one.
Supporting academic success for students experiencing poverty requires us all to reexamine what we expect from an education system that is supposed to level the playing the field, but often ends up exacerbating inequities.
However, we all — students, teachers, parents and community members — are able to be advocates for change.
Start by assuming that barriers and access are the issue, not personal beliefs or attitudes.
Check your own knowledge of local barriers for low-income families: Does your area have low-cost, high-quality child care for children under 3? How long are the waitlists for low-income housing where you live? Is there work that pays a living wage in your area, or are people chronically under-employed?
Many communities in Maine face these challenges and, as they impact parents, they also create toxic stress for children, which research tells us affects their readiness to learn. Too often in our culture there is an assumption that low-income families and children are not motivated to succeed. However, there is little credible evidence to support the belief that poor families don’t value education.
Low-income families are, however, often forced to make tough choices between meeting basic family needs that can be made tougher through poorly conceived school policies such as lunch shaming (where, for instance, schools deny children food or have alternative lunches for children who have outstanding lunch bills), pay-to-play sports, and making assumptions about resources available in children’s homes.
Assume that teachers are doing the best they can with the resources and training they have.
Teachers do not have the training that social workers, school counselors or school nurses do, and yet they must act as frontline social service providers to young people every day as fewer of these support staff are available in schools. That is why so many Maine teachers and after-school providers keep stashes of snacks, toiletries, school supplies and clothes tucked away in their classrooms.
Advocate for additional or shared support staff for your school, or, if that is not possible, for teacher training on responding effectively to children and families experiencing toxic stress associated with economic insecurity.
Support the expansion of social service coordination for schools and districts.
Social service and nonprofit organizations can be powerful allies for schools in creating networks of support for low-income children and families, but few administrators or teachers have the time to build these networks. Paying someone to coordinate services for children and families through the school site will pay dividends in long-term community wellness and student success.
Listen to young people.
Young people are adept at identifying the challenges to equity that they see in the world around them. Ask the young people in your life what they think your community and school need to be better, fairer places for everyone, and listen when they answer.
If you are a teacher, incorporate their perspectives into how you organize your classroom. If you are a parent or community member, remind the young people in your life to constantly ask, “Is this policy or program fair and inclusive for everyone?” And if the answer is no, support them in taking action to do something about it.
If you have the ability to advocate for change on any of these issues, write to your legislator, support community organizations working on these issues, or ask your school board to support leveraging the school to address the needs of the whole child.
Catharine Biddle is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine in Orono.