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Reaping What We've Sown: How Schools Fail Low-Income Parents

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Recently, I've been seeing more comments from people who argue that poverty causes people (specifically parents) not to value education. The latest opinion outburst has been prompted in part by the recent story of a young honor student in Chicago being beaten to death (unfortunately, not the only such case, but one of the most dramatic and publicized).

Some of these comments are coming from frustrated educators and others who think we are wasting our time trying to improve poorly performing schools in high-poverty communities because so many, if not most of the parents whose children attend these schools, "just don't care."

After 20 years of teaching in one of the poorest regions of the country, I respectfully disagree. Parents who do not love their children or don't want the best for them─frightful as that is─are still the exception.

Perhaps more parents in low-income communities appear to undervalue education because it’s clear to them that the public education system places less value on them and their children. Feeling powerless to change that reality can lead to confrontation, resistance, or just plain indifference toward the closest representatives of the educational system—the principal and teachers at their child's school.

These attitudes are not born out of poverty. They are a reaction to what these disenfranchised parents and students correctly perceive as America’s broken promise to provide equity and opportunity to all.

Separate, Unequal

Here in the Delta, my high school students understood very well that the historically white high school across town had a science lab and we did not. They got new textbooks when we did not. They had new computers that actually worked, while we had older ones─some of which had never worked. The mostly white school offered classes such as drama, dance, and creative writing, which we could not, and on and on.

My students also realized this disparity did not start here in the new millennium; most of their parents had come through this same school system with many of the same issues. Nor is it lost on students or parents when their school gets the temporary teachers, the teachers hired at the last minute, or the extended substitutes in “gatekeeper” classes like algebra and science.

Many schools in high-poverty areas are visually depressing and unsafe. Some are falling apart all around the students and staff. How does a teacher convince a kid or a parent whose child is sitting in a leaking trailer or dodging falling plaster that we really believe all children deserve a high quality education? What do such disparities say about the level of expectations the nation or the state (upon whom these schools rely for funding) has for the students and teachers who are in these schools?

Some of the parents try to improve schools with whatever limited resources they can raise. We used to have one grandmother who personally decorated every classroom door in the building just to make things brighter. One mother with a minimum wage job didn't have money to send to the school for various activities, but she brought me a sack of apples from her yard for helping her children after school.

There are millions of hard-working parents in low-income urban and rural communities who did not finish school themselves, but desperately want their children to have a better life. And let's not forget that many of the parents who some complain are "disengaged" were themselves poorly served by these same schools and systems.

A Deep-Rooted Tradition of Inequity

Those who assume that people in low-income communities simply don’t care have little personal knowledge of these communities or their histories. Traditionally, low-income communities have pushed their youngsters to pursue education as the best way not only to achieve their individual goals, but to help uplift the entire community.

Unfortunately, inequity is also a deeply-rooted tradition in American education. Waves of immigrant parents have had to fight for the education of their children, resisting prejudicial efforts to limit them to menial training. The movement to end separate-and-unequal schools that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision also resulted in the retaliatory termination and demotion of thousands of black educators across the South. More recently, the collateral damage from frantic attempts to meet the provisions of NCLB have further exacerbated the underlying disparities in educational equity and opportunity that created the socioeconomic achievement gap in the first place.

It might surprise some to learn that there are and have been many teachers who have given extra hours, visited student homes, and had high expectations for students in poor communities long before Teach for America, KIPP, or Michelle Rhee came onto the scene. Some of those teachers have grown just plain tired of the unappreciated Herculean effort each school year requires, not to mention the irreplaceable toll that such on-going overexertion can take on their responsibilities to their own children and families.

In a a recent guest post at ASCD’s Inservice blog, William Parrett and Kathleen Budge, authors of a forthcoming book on leadership in high-poverty/high-performing schools, make the point (as others have) that there are schools in poor communities that manage to perform at high levels in today’s high stakes accountability system. "These schools," they write, "build and maintain their successes by creating positive relationships among staff and students and focusing their work in three primary domains: building leadership capacity; focusing on student and professional learning; and fostering safe, healthy and supportive learning environments."

True enough. But the seldom asked or answered questions still linger: Why do we make it so much harder for these schools to succeed? Why do we make it so much harder for students who need education the most to get it? And why is that OK?

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