Removing the Barriers to Learning


Leading for Equity: Understanding Poverty to Reach, Motivate, and TeachBy Arina Bokas

Leading for EquityLearning doesn’t happen separately from our everyday existence; it is deeply connected to other processes and experiences that affect us as human beings. How students engage in learning depends on their prevalent intelligences as well as socioeconomic, cultural, and biological factors. When students experience hunger and other deficits associated with poverty, learning is not what occupies their minds. Daily survival becomes the main goal, often causing chronic stress and disengagement from school.

Unfortunately, poverty in America is a growing phenomenon. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, in 2012–13, one out of every 30 children in the United States experienced homelessness at some point during the year, resulting in a total of nearly 2.5 million children—up from 1.6 million in 2010. Therefore, there are many students with “highly complex barriers to learning” that attend our schools.

There is no single magic measure that can turn a disinterested student into an engaged learner. To ensure that all students have an opportunity for quality education, however, schools have to cultivate educational practices that are flexible, relevant, empowering, and supported by the entire community.

Scheduling Flexibility

Many students living in chronic poverty have issues with daily schedules and transportation, making early school start times and after-school activities a challenge. Research shows that the earliest school start times correlate with annual reductions in student performance of about “0.1 standard deviations for disadvantaged students, equivalent to replacing an average teacher with a teacher at the sixteenth percentile in terms of effectiveness.” Districts should consider starting school later and offering later bus drop offs to accommodate after-school activities.

In addition, low-income students often have very little support at home. For them, long summer vacations frequently lead to substantial regression in learning. Pontiac School District in Oakland County, Mich., a district with a high concentration of low-income families, has adopted a different year-round calendar that puts students in classrooms as much as possible, which benefits them greatly. In her interview with Metro Parent, Kelly Williams, the district’s superintendent, shared that 80 percent of parents were in favor of this balanced calendar. The district also identifies students who need extra help and invites them to “intervention intersessions” during these breaks. The sessions, run by teachers and tutors, deliver one-on-one counseling.

Closing Relevance Gap

Students from neighborhoods with concentrated poverty often face overwhelming odds in their communities and find very little interest in academic pursuits and personal achievement. To truly be engaged, learning has to be personally meaningful and relevant to learners. These students need to see education as the way out of poverty and into a different life. Thus, hands-on learning opportunities that lead to immediate application of knowledge and professional certifications are highly desirable.

Apprentice and mentoring programs that offer students opportunities to earn money while exploring various career options are very real ways to engage students who are often not sure what their future holds. Fairfax Public Schools in Virginia, for example, offers a two-part training program that consists of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. Employers who are participating in Virginia’s registered apprenticeship program run the classes.

Blended learning, which allows students to learn via both face-to-face and virtual instruction, and project-based learning, which requires students to come up with solutions for real-life situations, help students develop a sense of accomplishment and personal value that they often lack. Dual-enrollment programs—a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time—also give students motivation to stay at school and persevere.

 Empowering Connections

There is nothing that motivates people more than their relationships with other people who believe in them. Research continuously suggests that relationships in school play a decisive role in nurturing academic engagement and achievement. Students’ sense of relatedness is critical to their academic motivation.

Billie Pambid, a former principal of Renaissance High School, an alternative educational facility in Clarkston, Mich., who credits the growing success of her school to her staff’s ability to develop personal connections with students, shared the following: “When I do have to suspend or even expel students, I talk to them and tell them why I’m doing it so they know what they could have done differently. I then tell them how sad I am. Most of the time, when an expelled or suspended student leaves my office, he or she turns around at the door and says, ‘Thanks, Mrs. Pambid.’ It amazes me.”

Teachers who believe in their students regardless of their circumstances have the power to motivate students and see them succeed. At times, it takes nothing more than a simple and truthful “I know you can do it. I believe in you.”

Building an Educational Community

As difficult as it might be, expanding institutional capacity to provide all families and students with opportunities for learning is a necessity. It requires numerous organizational changes to embrace the collaborative work of many individuals for one collective goal—quality education.

For example, Guilford County Schools, the third largest district in North Carolina, has created a comprehensive model for engaging parents through efforts coordinated by its Guilford Parent Academy. The academy offers workshops, videos, and free online tutoring for parents that need some guidance to help their children learn. Since most parents have many competing obligations that prevent them from attending workshops, the district has partnered with companies that employ large numbers of parents to offer the workshops on-site during lunch or dinner breaks.

In the Pontiac School District, there is a network of community partners, including members of local professional organizations, businesses, and churches, who, in coordinated collaboration, back the district’s schools. Some partners provide tutoring services and enrichment opportunities, while others make sure that students’ essential needs are met. Partners donate uniforms for schools, provide transportation, supply food, and do whatever is needed to ensure that every student has access to quality education.

Students are different just as circumstances are different. There is no one remedy that will work for every student every time. With all of the variances, however, what stays constant is that to improve the odds for all students, education needs to become a responsibility of all.

Log onto ASCD’s website for more Leading for Equity resources to understand poverty to reach, motivate, and teach.


Arina Bokas is a producer and a host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV and the editor of Kids’ Standard magazine in Clarkston, Mich.  She is also a faculty member at Mott Community College in Flint, Mich. Connect with Bokas on Twitter.



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