Schools try to adapt as poverty levels rise

ADDISON COUNTY — The number of low-income students in Vermont’s schools is on the rise, and teachers and administrators reacting to these shifting demographics are struggling to close the achievement gap between low-income students and their higher-income peers.
Schools in the Addison County area, like those around the state, are trying different strategies to approach the problem.
Currently, the only official measure of poverty in schools is the number of students who enroll in the free or reduced lunch program. To qualify for the program, students’ families must meet certain income requirements.
According to these measures, a third of Vermont students come from low-income families.
Though cognizant of ever-shrinking school budgets and resources, education officials in Vermont say the state can’t afford to ignore the needs of low-income students, who are significantly more likely to drop out of school than higher-income peers. Nationally, a child born into the lowest economic quintile — a family whose income is in the bottom one-fifth of all families — is four times less likely to graduate from high school and 10 times less likely to graduate from college than a child from the top economic quintile.
According to Susan Hayes, who oversees standards and assessment for the Vermont Department of Education, Vermont students perform better, on the whole, than their national peers when it comes to national assessment tests. But she added that the data still show a widening achievement gap between low-income students and their peers. That culminates in lower graduation rates among low-income students, particularly low-income boys. By 11th grade, fewer than one in five low-income boys are proficient in either math or writing.
“It starts early, and then it ends with this depressing fact: They’re dropping out,” Hayes said. “We’re just not getting traction on this issue.”
So Hayes and a team of researchers from the Department of Education last year headed into a few of the schools in the state that have found success better serving low-income populations. That research culminated in a report called “The Roots of Success,” which was released in October.
“I think this is one of the biggest issues the state faces,” said Hayes. “When these kids drop out of high school, they’re putting a great financial burden on the state. There are so many benefits to really tackling this, and I’m glad there’s this sort of momentum building around the issue.”
On the ground, schools are adapting in their own ways.
At the Bridport Central School, close to 40 percent of students participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program. The school is a “Title 1” school, meaning Bridport qualifies for federal funding because of the high percentage of students from low-income families.
Principal Georgette Childs said that the school is lucky, because it has a number of support services not always common in a school its size. A counselor is on staff three days a week, and the school employs a part-time clinician, too. There’s an educational support team, not to mention teachers that Childs praised as “excellent.”
But time in the classroom isn’t enough, Childs said.
“I think one of the things that we’ve found is that many of our students with low incomes are needing a longer time, a longer length of the school day, so we support them with an after-school academy,” she said. “We support all of our students with this.”
The after-school program is voluntary, and students are invited to join based on their performance in class and on standardized tests. Four days a week, students stay after for an extra hour to work with a licensed teacher. Half of the additional instructional time is devoted to math, and the other half to reading and language arts skills.
It works out in the end because the bus that brings home middle and high school students from the union schools in Middlebury rolls through town just in time to pick up students who stay late for extra help.
“It’s fairly specific, and designed to help kids bring their skills up so that they’re not lagging behind their peers,” Childs said. “Sometimes kids just need that extra time.”
Meanwhile, at Neshobe Elementary School in Brandon, Principal Judi Pulsifer said that, unfortunately, the conversation about poverty in the school isn’t a new development.
In the past, the school’s percentage of students enrolled in the free or reduced-price lunch program hovered near 45 or 46 percent. Now that number is at 51 percent — and Pulsifer warns that the number isn’t an accurate indicator of financial need in the school. Some families choose not to enroll in the free lunch program, and others fall through the cracks.
Hayes, from the Department of Education, acknowledged that the measure for studying poverty in schools is lacking — particularly when students reach middle or high school, and are more concerned about the possible stigma attached to participating in the free lunch program.
“Because we have had children that are facing these circumstances for a long time, this has been an ongoing situation,” Pulsifer said.
The approach at Neshobe, so far, has been to look at individual children and try to meet those needs. The school has a homework support group in place that meets first thing in the morning. For some students, Pulsifer said, it’s a way to get a bit of extra help — and for others it’s a way to find guidance that students might not be getting at home.
The school is also experimenting with more physical activity throughout the day to help students focus on their studies. There are groups that exercise briefly early in the morning, which Pulsifer thinks is giving students a better start for the day.
“The whole physical piece ties into the academic learning piece,” she said.
There’s a focus on social and emotional needs, too. Sixth-grade student volunteers are matched up with students in kindergarten and first grade in peer mentorships. Meanwhile, the school reaches out to families, too, and tries to link them to social services or other support networks if a family finds itself in need.
“Some of us here are used to navigating through some systems,” Pulsifer said. “For a parent it can be very intimidating.”
But Pulsifer, and other principals, pointed out that schools have to find middle ground in reaching out to students in trouble while also challenging high achievers.
“We look at every child,” she said. “We need to continue to challenge (the high achievers) and build on their learning, as much as we need to help students who are struggling. It’s a very hard balance.”
In an age of intense concern about school spending, Hayes said that the “Roots of Success” report doesn’t have to mean costly reforms at Vermont schools.
“A lot of it has to do with attitudes and beliefs, and there isn’t necessarily a dollar sign attached to that,” Hayes said. “There’s a lot that schools can do that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
The recommendations, in fact, boil down to eight simple values: high expectations, continuous improvements, leadership, changes informed by strong use of data, a professional teaching culture, student support systems, an encouraging school climate, and family involvement.
The recommendations were culled after extensive — and anonymous — studies at three schools the state deemed successful in their efforts to bring up test scores and help low-income students. The take-away message, according to the report, is that demographics do not determine destiny: There are examples of schools, both nationally and in Vermont, where students excel academically despite coming from lower income brackets.
“This research proves that all students, given the right learning environment, can excel,” wrote Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca in an op-ed last month. “We must no longer accept that some children, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, cannot succeed in school. With conviction and passion, the schools and staff profiled in this report implore us to abandon that antiquated assumption.”
Vilaseca also pointed out that the study’s findings aren’t new — but Hayes said they do give schools a snapshot of what works, and can serve as a starting point for making other changes in schools like internships or mentoring programs.
According to “The Roots of Success” research, students’ success doesn’t boil down to individual programs at these schools so much as the atmosphere in the building, and teachers’ and administrators’ high expectations for students across income levels.
That, according to Leicester Central School Co-principal Kate Grodin, is just the approach administrators should take. The school is investigating ways to help students improve their test scores — Grodin mentioned more intensive writing across the disciplines as one option. But at the end of the day, she said, a school’s success boils down to something more straightforward.
“Good instruction for low-income students is simply good instruction,” Grodin said. “It’s simply best practice at the end of the day. Everybody ends up benefiting.”

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