Schools With Large Concentrations of Poverty Can Be High-Performing, But Not Because They Concentrate Poverty

I recently learned that my work has been used as justification by school officials who advocate deliberately concentrating poverty in a few schools.

My reaction is dismay.

The high-performing, high-poverty schools I write about hold many lessons, but none of them is that we should deliberately create more high-poverty schools.

First, the context. In suburban Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, which not long ago was largely rural farmland and today is suburban sprawl, school enrollments continually grow as apartment buildings and housing developments fill up with families.

What that means, as anyone who has lived in a rapidly growing area knows, is that school boundaries have to change fairly often.

A few years ago Loudoun County drew school boundaries in such a way that the children of low-income families — many of them Hispanic — living in a few apartment complexes were dispersed into a few different schools up to three miles away from their homes.

Enrollments have kept growing and the Loudoun County School Board has to readjust the borders again.

As someone who has lived through a couple of them, I can attest that boundary adjustments are hard on communities. Kids develop friendships and bonds with teachers. They feel comfortable in their routines, and change can be difficult. Same thing for the parents and teachers, who develop relationships with fellow parents and colleagues. So let us just stipulate that there are no really good solutions, and school boards and administrators are often faced with very difficult decisions when having to redraw school boundaries.

But let us also understand that it is in these seemingly small, difficult decisions that we demonstrate what kind of people we are and what kind of people we want to be.

The Loudoun County School Board is considering a few different plans. Some would just readjust to simply balance out the numbers with space in schools. But one, Plan 12, has the explicit purpose of bringing the children living in the apartment houses back into two neighborhood schools in order to concentrate students from low-income families.

One of the rationales being used is that it would be advantageous to the children from low-income families because it would be easier for the schools to serve them. (To hear a school board member make this argument, listen here.)

Two pieces of evidence are being used to justify this rationale:

  1. That a couple of Loudoun County’s Title I schools (with significant concentrations of students from low-income homes) are doing pretty well.
  2. That other schools with large concentrations of children from low-income homes have also done well, as evidenced by the work of “Karin Chenoweth [who has] written two books on the subject. Her books tell the stories of schools with large percentages of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds changing those odds.”

Those are the words of an assistant superintendent in support of the idea of re-drawing the boundaries in such a way that half or more of the students would be from low-income families, most of them Hispanic.

I looked at the report card of one of Loudoun County’s Title I schools, Sterling Elementary, and it does seem to be doing pretty well, more or less matching the state’s performance (though not matching the county’s performance).

And it is true that I have spent the last decade of my life documenting that schools with large concentrations of students of color and students from low-income families can achieve at high levels. I have written two books, co-written a third, and written many columns with evidence from actual schools.

But the idea that any high-poverty school is doing well because it has a high concentration of children from low-income families is a big leap of logic.

In fact, the educators in the schools I have written about would scoff at the idea that educating all students in a high-poverty school is somehow easier or inherently more efficient.

They are successful, I would argue, because the educators in them have figured out how to operate at a much higher level than most schools operate. They are more thoughtful, more deliberate, and more efficient in lots of ways, from the way they build their master schedules to the way they structure their professional development. They are driven to do things differently because they believe their students are capable of excellence and deserve the opportunity to prove they are. But these high-performing, high-poverty schools are called outliers because they are so rare. Far more typical is the high-poverty school that regularly meets the low expectations that are often held for them.

That’s why I would advise educators and school board members in Loudoun County to go visit Sterling Elementary — and other high-poverty schools that are doing well — to see what lessons they might hold in terms of improving instruction.

I suspect that they will find what I have — that almost any technique or strategy used by these schools can be implemented in all schools to improve the academic and social success of all students.

But no school board member should ignore the huge body of research that demonstrates that, on average, children from low-income families benefit from being in mostly middle-class schools — which is mostly what Loudoun County has. In fact, all kids benefit from integration — both economic and ethnic — in lots of ways, from academic achievement to developing social confidence in a variety of settings.

So let us learn best practices from those educators who effectively serve students living in poverty. But let’s not use their success to defend “separate but equal” schools.

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