WASHINGTON -- Since the time when the most pressing problem facing educators was pigtails being dunked in inkwells, the American school house has maintained a tradition of delivering the 3 Rs—reading, ‘riting, and ’rithmatic. Those halcyon days, if they ever existed, are long past. Today’s educators face a myriad of concerns including the high concentrations of poverty that limit opportunities for young Americans to succeed in too many of our schools. That’s why the American school house must play a critical role in addressing at least one more R—reducing the negative consequences of poverty by becoming a central component of federal, state and local antipoverty strategies.
Schools that are educating high numbers of disadvantaged students must employ innovative strategies to promote academic achievement. Many of these strategies are what we believe have a direct impact on student learning, such as offering incentives to recruit and retain highly effective teachers, implementing challenging yet accessible curriculum, and providing additional learning opportunities beyond the traditional school day. Yet it is just as important to address outside-school influences, specifically poverty that can also significantly impact student achievement and success.
Factors from inadequate housing, food instability, and financial insecurity place stresses on young people that distract them from their studies and can cause them to disengage from school entirely. When poverty intersects with poor performing schools the outcome for low-income students can be devastating, from dramatically lower test scores as compared to their higher-income peers, to staggering dropout rates.
Further, there are a number of government programs that help address the basic needs of school-age children but families often face barriers to participating in these programs. Some of these barriers include:
Lack of outreach and accessible information about the programs
Transportation challenges of visiting and signing up for these programs at different (and sometimes remote) locations
Burdensome application requirements, such as unnecessary repeat visits to program offices and unnecessary document requests
The stigma associated with applying for programs
These problems are multiplied and made more complicated for those families that qualify for more than one public-benefits program.
Communities across the country are finding that pairing antipoverty strategies with schools result in positive student outcomes as well as improve the delivery of public benefits. Although these are not traditional relationships, schools can play a pivotal role in providing the important economic services that stabilize families— services that can also eliminate some the challenges that undermine student academic achievement. Already school-based antipoverty initiatives in places such as New York City, Michigan, San Diego, and New Mexico highlight the success students can realize, not only in the classroom but also as it concerns their overall sense of well-being, when the traditional role of the school is expanded to include services targeting poverty.