Investment in Struggling Schools equals investment in our Youth

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

Here’s a statistic all New Yorkers, irrespective of race or income, should be appalled by: of the city’s more than 400 public high schools, 100 graduated less than 50 percent of its students in 2013. Another 50 of those schools had graduation rates below 33 percent. Not surprisingly, African-Americans and Latinos are 90 percent of the students in these schools.

What to do about the city’s struggling public high schools has vexed many City Hall occupants. The practice of the previous administration was to quickly close, replace, and rebrand them – an approach heralded by the education reform movement. But if we are serious about improving graduation rates and helping students in high need communities succeed in the classroom, we must introduce strong systems of non-academic support such as mentoring, counseling, and healthcare into schools serving low-income students.

To that end, the New York City Department of Education announced this month that it will invest additional resources into helping “Renewal Schools” succeed.  This will include allowing them to offer extended learning time, as well as adapting them to the Community Schools model, with the resources to provide a range of social services to students, above and beyond what is traditionally offered. 

Poverty Conditions Limit Student Achievement

Student success in the classroom is too often hindered by a range of factors beyond the control of even the best educators.  Too much of corporate education reform focuses on the role of teachers, despite considerable evidence showing that conditions related to poverty are far more predictive of student achievement.  Indeed, a new study released this month by the Center for New York City Affairs found that neighborhood unemployment, income, and homelessness directly foretell school absenteeism, which in turn, impacts student achievement. 

Low-income students bring with them a range of challenges into the school building that stand in the way of their success.  Unless we deal with these factors head on, we will not see school improvement. 

If I am cold in my home, my very first concern should be to make sure the boiler is working, not to worry about whether I need to buy more sweaters to wear inside.  Once the heat is on to a sufficient degree, then I can make clothing decisions.  And once we have made sufficient efforts ensuring the students enter classrooms ready to learn, regardless of their zip code or household situation, then we can move our focus to other factors, including instruction, school-level collaboration, and curricular standards. 

So although we will never truly fix education until we better address poverty, by offering an intensive set of non-academic supports we can allow teachers to better focus on academic work.  A major recent study (funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, no less) provides evidence of the strength of this integrated approach, which also builds off of well-accepted research about “whole child” development.  It would be great to see all sides of the education debate unite around this research, and lay down their arms in the battles over teacher tenure and high stakes testing.

Public Supports Investing In Struggling Schools

More support for this effort comes from New Yorkers themselves, in response to an Unheard Third poll conducted in 2013.  We asked respondents about the best way to improve public schools, offering a choice between a) closing low-performing schools and opening new ones, including charter schools, to give parents more choice and foster competition; or b) investing more in schools in poor neighborhoods to reduce class size, increase teacher training and salary, and add more health and social services.  New Yorkers overwhelmingly favored the latter choice, by a ratio of 2.6 to 1.  This support was consistent across income groups, but particularly strong among public school parents, of whom 76 percent favored this policy over the Bloomberg approach.

It is good to see the mayor utilizing the wisdom of our city’s communities, as well as evidence-based practices, instead of relying on ideologically-driven policy.  Our schools need not be testing grounds for implementing corporate theories, nor ground zero for policies to dismantle unions that seek to preserve and support middle class jobs.

By strengthening neighborhood schools, we can also undo some of the problems indirectly caused by school choice and charter schools, which filter out students whose parents have the wherewithal to place them into the competitive lotteries they require for admission.  School choice does provide benefits for young people whose interests have focused to a point where they might seek a school with a unique theme.  Indeed, our research has shown that in New York City, new career and technical education high schools, which integrate engaging real world skill development alongside traditional coursework, have compelling benefits for black and Latino males, the population with the lowest overall graduation rates.  But school choice is not a systemic solution, and we cannot afford to leave the rest of our students behind.  We are pleased to see that the mayor has no intention of doing so.

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