By Walter McKenzie
On Wednesday, May 6, 2015, ASCD held its third Whole Child Symposium on the topic of poverty. Convened at the Newseum in the heart of Washington, D.C., and streamed online to educators everywhere, the symposium assembled two panels of educators to explore the effects and implications of poverty on preparing children for the future.
“It’s a national problem. If public education in this country fails, the nation fails,” stated Steve Suitts, senior fellow of the Southern Education Foundation, during the first panel discussion. “The trend of impoverished majority has been accelerated by the great recession. Even in suburban America, more and more students are low income. Poverty cannot become the new normal.” And yet that is the reality we are facing.
ASCD executive director Judy Seltz agreed: “At the beginning of the War on Poverty, there was a national commitment to make life better for poor people. But over time there was a shift, and it became OK to change the dialogue from [focusing on] the supports people needed to blaming them: it’s their fault. This 50-year mark is an opportunity to look back, do this again, do it differently, do it better.” It has become too easy to select media and news sources that only reinforce our existing belief systems. To fight poverty is to fight ignorance and belief systems of “us” versus “them.”
Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Jennings School District in Missouri reinforced this point: “People don’t choose poverty or criminal actions. They are pushed into choices that hold us all back.” People have to understand we are all in this together, she emphasized. “I can’t do well until you do well, and you can’t do well until I do well.” How do we promote this mind-set in our schools? According to Anderson, “Relationships, curriculum, and pedagogy are the three things that can transform schools to meet the needs of impoverished students. These things can address their needs and sharpen the focus on how they can be successful learning and growing.”
During the second panel discussion, Kathleen Budge, associate professor at Boise State University and coauthor of Turning High-Poverty Schools Into High-Performing Schools, proclaimed, “Demographics do not equal destiny. It’s about knowing your kids, knowing their families, and knowing your community. That is the key difference in the schools we have studied.” What does that look like? “In London, they’ve networked the schools making progress with schools struggling so they can learn from each other.” But how do we know who and what to target? “Use broad data and build relationships. That makes everything else possible,” Budge explained. “All the technical expertise in the world isn’t as important as your mental map—what you see in your role as the teacher. Challenge your biases and stereotypes. Educate yourself.”
Reinforcing Budge’s points, Brittney Maness, a fourth-year science teacher at Clinch School in Sneedville, Tenn., stated, “We are the smallest K–12 school in Tennessee, and we work to know our students; not just their learning, but their lives outside of school. Knowing and nurturing students is key.” Maness believes that reinforcing the community commitment to each child—and each child’s commitment to the community—is critical. “If students want to go and learn a skill at a vocational school or through the military, that’s great. But let’s encourage them to come back and serve the community once they have their skills.”
Luis Torres, the principal at P.S. 55 in the Bronx, N.Y., couldn’t agree more. “Everything these students learn in school gets unlearned out in the community. We have to start pushing for communities around the schools to be invested. Graduation speeches when I was a kid always said, ‘Work hard, kids, so you can be successful and leave your community.’ My graduation speech now is ‘Work hard, kids, so you can be successful and come back and make your community a better place.’” And there’s more to Torres’ success. “We match the resources of the community to the needs of the building, to help meet the needs of the children. It’s a matter of you as a school leader having the guts to advocate for the things your children need. This can no longer be about putting band aids on children’s wounds.” The challenge? “Schools that are successful are rewarded with funding. Schools like mine that are working with the most at-risk kids are losing funding. This has to change.”
The event concluded with all six panelists coming together to summarize the day. Those in attendance, both in person and online, benefitted greatly from taking part in the event and asking the panelists questions that extended and enriched the understanding of everyone involved. Our work now continues with a renewed sense of clarity and purpose around the issue of poverty in education. In a world that is continually shrinking, it’s not acceptable to think of children in poverty as “someone else’s kids” anymore.