By N. Chaunte Garrett
For much of my career, I have worked in high-poverty schools or districts undergoing transformation. I learned very quickly that I could not sympathize enough with my students to make their condition of poverty better, and I could not empathize with my students enough to make it go away. I came to understand poverty as a condition—as a paradigm built on a pervasive lack of means to meet basic needs. So many educators face the challenge of teaching students in poverty all over the country. Shifting the paradigm means moving beyond equal opportunities for students and ensuring for equitable opportunities. Equality means that all students have the exact same resources; equity means that all students have what they need to learn and be successful. We must lead for equity in order to figure out what our students need and provide it.
Leading for equity in the midst of the poverty paradigm requires several things.
When leading for equity to support students of poverty, we must start with hope. Poverty presents dismal conditions and future outlooks. By design, everything we think, say, and do must be to instill hope in the lives of the students we serve. I cringe when I hear educators make comments such as “These students can’t learn” or “You can only expect so much from these students.” Students sense and react to our attitudes and undertones. Attitudes of hope, words of encouragement, and opportunities for success all positively influence the achievement of students of poverty.
As educators, every choice we make affects the future of our students. For that reason, every choice we make must be well-informed. Using data is essential. Realizing that there are many factors that may hinder student learning when educating students of poverty, we must make sure our data is multifaceted. Data that provides information about what students have learned and what they have yet to master provides a roadmap with which we can begin to plan instruction. In addition, we must have qualitative data that helps us understand what is happening in the lives of students that may impede their ability to master the material. Remember, poverty is a condition. What is lacking in this student’s life? What are the circumstances causing this student not to achieve at the same levels as others? Using multiple data sources, educators can begin to personalize instruction for students of poverty and understand their own abilities and limitations in addressing these students’ needs.
Like all students, students of poverty need to be able to access the curriculum. Often, students of poverty are very transient throughout their academic career, which results in learning gaps. Providing curriculum experiences that close learning gaps is essential. Using data to identify what students know and providing in-depth exposure to the curriculum, which helps students build both skills and content knowledge, will allow students the opportunity to recapture educational opportunities lost due to their impoverished conditions.
Access to resources and support that help students achieve academic success is essential. When students have learning gaps, their opportunities for academic achievement are limited until the gaps are addressed. Celebrating students’ growth as they progress throughout the curriculum provides a sense of pride and efficacy that encourages them to persevere. Without the experiences of academic success, student can often become disengaged from the academic aspects of school. Their understanding of the need for school and the offerings of a sound education become diminished.
Access to curriculum-enhancing experiences promotes student understanding of what is being taught. These experiences can be provided in multiple ways, from project-based learning and hands-on lessons in the classroom to extracurricular opportunities like clubs and social activities. Curriculum-enhancing experiences can be provided through digital content that extends the learning beyond the classroom and even across the world.
As educators, we often try to do it all, but that is impossible. Poverty is bigger than what we do. However, developing strategic partnerships with various entities in our communities can help us to address the things students lack in their lives. Using data to identify students’ needs and connecting students and families to helpful resources is essential in addressing the poverty that manifests within our schools. I served as a principal of a high-poverty school with a very caring staff. When our students faced difficult life experiences, my staff would immediately pitch in to help. They taxed themselves with food drives, dollar jean days, meal preparation, and anything they could think of to help the students so they could focus on learning in school. I was able to meet a local pastor, and from this meeting, I was able to connect the families we served to health care, affordable housing, child care opportunities, and food assistance. My staff was able to focus on teaching and providing a sound educational experience. As a teacher, by partnering with local colleges, I was able to expose my “at-risk” student to hands-on engineering experiences that I could not afford to replicate in my classroom.
Culture of Inclusion
There was once a time when students would sit in school and not know they were poor. It appeared that everyone had the same quality of life. Our students no longer have this experience. It is imperative that we do not employ practices and policies that further ostracize students by being insensitive to their condition. The inclusion of parents as partners in their children’s education is key. We must remember that poverty did not just come about; in some cases, it can be generational. This results in constant navigating of the condition, from housing to employment to resources to educational opportunities for students. Leading with equity requires actually learning how to partner with parents rather than just saying we will partner with them. Realizing that parent involvement is different from parent engagement and both are valuable is helpful when learning how to partner with parents. Finding ways to include parents in the process of educating their children will not only mitigate the effects of poverty but begin to transform families as well.
The paradigm of poverty is much bigger than we can fathom in our classrooms and schools. It is much broader than that, and it manifests itself within the fabric of our society. The key to the success of students in poverty is ensuring they are provided equitable opportunities. By leading for equity with hope, data-driven decisions, access to curriculum and curriculum-enhancing opportunities, partnerships, and inclusive cultures, we can close the equity gap.
Log onto the ASCD website for more resources to help tackle the effects of poverty on students and achieve equity in classrooms and schools.
Chaunte Garrett serves as the director of accountability for the Rowan-Salisbury school system, a consultant, and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. Her work in education includes curriculum and instruction, leadership, accountability, and school transformation. Connect with Garrett on Twitter @drncgarrett or on her blog.