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Overcoming the Grind of Poverty on Children… and Teachers

May 31, 2015

A recent article by Tampa Bay Times reporter Mariene Sokol summarizing the recent findings of a teacher survey done in Hillsborough County caught my eye. I hope it also caught the eye of data driven education reformers across the country because Sokol’s article provides hard evidence that teaching in schools serving children raised in poverty, particularly those with disengaged parents, is far more difficult than teaching in schools with affluent and/or actively engaged parents. The message of the findings is summarized in the first three paragraphs:

School districts offer cash bonuses. They hire teacher coaches. They appeal to the idealism of educators who want to make a difference.

But the proof is in their own data: It’s hard to teach at a high-poverty school.

There’s less buy-in from parents. Kids don’t follow the rules. There aren’t even enough computers. And staff turnover is sky high.

So the if the favored approach of the “reformers”, giving bonuses and assistance to teachers doesn’t improve morale in a school, what does? Near the end of the article is the answer:

Dunbar, a West Tampa medical and science magnet school, had some of the happiest teachers, with a composite score of 96 percent. But the percentage of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunches was relatively high at 83 percent.

It’s a small school, with only 287 students. Principal Sarah Jacobsen Capps also said she is deliberate about maintaining a culture of collaboration.

“We have constant conversations and reflections on what we’re doing,” she said. “We always talk about it all the time. Even after we saw the survey results, we asked, ‘Where else should we focus?’ “

Some reformers will read this and conclude that “choice” is the key because Dunbar is a magnet school. Others will read it an say that keeping schools small is the key. I read the article and come to the conclusion that three factors are at play here:

  • Parent engagement: I am never surprised to read that magnet schools have better learning environments because one of the de facto entry requirements to a magnet school is parent engagement. When parents are engaged in the lives of their children and interested in their current well-being and future, children thrive in school. Note that parent engagement is actionable. It is something schools can foster and support and in the article it noted that schools who made an effort to engage parents saw an increase in their teacher’s satisfaction and an increase in the percentage of students who followed the rules in school.
  • Student focus: I know from experience leading large districts that smaller schools like Dunbar do not have to focus on logistical issues nearly as much as large schools. With fewer buses, fewer mouths to feed in the cafeteria, fewer names to learn, and fewer opportunities for students to be disruptive it is easier for teachers to direct their attention to children. Indeed, in a small school with limited transience it is common for teachers to know the names and families of each and every child in the school. While size makes it easier to focus on students as opposed to logistics, it is possible for larger schools to keep the focus on teaching and learning each student with the right kind of leadership, which is the third element.
  • Teacher-centered leadership: The principal at Dunbar seeks a “culture of collaboration”, which was illustrated by the way she handled the information from the survey. Instead of using a top-down method whereby the omniscient administrator explains and interprets data to the staff, the principal engaged her staff in “constant conversations and reflections“.

Small schools and magnet schools are easy to replicate and maintain the traditional separation of school and family life and the hierarchical organizational structure that is familiar to business leaders and politicians. Engaging disengaged parents, maintaining a focus on each and every student, and nurturing teachers are soft skills that are difficult to measure and require a change in the orthodoxy in schools…. but my experience and, I would contend, these data support that direction going forward.

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