The hidden message schools send poverty students and students of color

Although recent twitter posts by Arnie Duncan laud a rise in graduation rates for American students, a recent report published by the Dana Point – U.S. Department of Education shows much work remains to be done. Report demographics of students who entered high school in 2009 and dropped out before the junior year (2012) show 4.3% are Black and 3.5 are Hispanic in contrast to 2.1 White and .3 Asian.  Additionally, the report shows students from families in the lowest socioeconomic status group drop out at a rate of 4.7% while those in the highest group drop out at .6%.  It would appear that students of color are at risk…and if they are Hispanic or Black AND poor…while they are REALLY at risk.

This is really not new.  Any one who has worked in a poverty school could tell you this. The calls for school reform have echoed for years. There are pockets of success – where students rise above and gain a foothold on their way to a better life.  But it is not enough.

When I would visit elementary schools, I would ask the students how many planned to go to college.  The arms of the students rose in the air and voices excitedly would call out, they wanted to be doctors, teachers, even the President.  These were poor children and most were Hispanic or Black. These are the same children who as freshmen, sophomores, or juniors are quitting school.  What happened to their hope for a bright future?

During those critical middle school years, we need to do things differently.  The traditional policies and structure have failed our poorer students, especially those “minority” students.  We need to show them in words, actions, and policies that we believe they can succeed. With parents working hard at multiple jobs and still struggling to make ends meet, our students need to see the possibilities for their future.  Media highlights stories of minorities as criminals– shot by police, marching against brutality — our students need images and stories that create an alternative for the future.

By middle school, students become aware of their family situation, the neighborhood condition, and the way the “world works” for “people like them”.  It can be hard to hold on to that young dream of going to college and  living the American dream.  Too many of our schools, contribute to the killing of student dreams with punitive grading, labeling struggling students, and reactive, traditional discipline policies — often in spite of individual teacher attempts to build meaningful relationships.

When a school assigns zeros, penalizes students for not learning as quickly as peers through late work deductions and lack of re-testing opportunities, or allows failing grades to be assigned without requiring reteaching/retesting, they allow some students to move through the systems without learning the required content and skills for success.  Setting them up for future academic struggles that will manifest in poor attendance, acting out, and gaps in their learning.

When a school creates lists of students, labeling them as “lagging” or “low” and assigns prescribed interventions for the group, including remedial classes that remove students from electives and mainstream classes, they lessen the student’s self-efficacy and self-concept.

When a school follows a policy that assigns suspensions — in school and out of school — that remove a student from the educational environment for a period of time, they contribute to the academic gap.  This practice also contributes to a student seeing them selves as a “bad” person.  Often in hopes of hiding their suspension rates, schools use different codes or words for classroom removal.  Even policies where students walk silently in the halls or are escorted out of the building at the end of the day send messages to students about how they are viewed by the school. This is especially harmful for our poor minority students who are finding their self-image in a world filled with negative media stereotypes.

If we want to get serious about solving the achievement gap for our poverty students and students of color, we need to take a long look at the message our policies send students about their ability to succeed. One of my favorite sayings came from the Negro College Fund:  “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  Too many minds are being wasted still!


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