School & District Management Opinion

Beating the Odds in Urban Schools

By Bolgen Vargas & Jean-Claude Brizard — November 01, 2010 7 min read
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President Barack Obama has rightly called graduating from high school “an economic imperative.” Those with a high school diploma are less likely to receive public assistance or to face incarceration, and are more likely to secure employment and to gross higher lifetime earnings. Yet, as one recent study shows, only half the high school students in America’s 50 largest cities graduate in four years. This grim statistic is even more dismal for underrepresented minorities and students with special needs.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act made this problem evident to all by requiring the reporting of disaggregated data on student progress by subgroups. But those of us engaged in teaching poor urban students have been aware of this issue for quite some time, particularly those of us who were educated in the very schools experiencing this phenomenon. We remember vividly that more than 60 percent of our peers in high school never walked across the stage at graduation. For us, correcting this “opportunity gap” is not only a moral and economic imperative, it’s also often a matter of life and death.

Most Americans understand that we are in a period of national peril because of the economic and social impact of an unprepared workforce. Our dropout crisis and achievement gap, quantified in a 2009 large-scale analysis by McKinsey & Co., “The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools,” have now captured the attention of those outside public education, from small, community-based organizations to the largest businesses, and from City Hall to the White House.

There have been many studies on the factors that contribute to students’ dropping out of high school, particularly those factors external to school control, such as poverty, family circumstance, minority status, limited English-language proficiency, and challenging neighborhood conditions. Yet while much has been done to identify risk, few studies have incorporated the viewpoints of successful students who, despite facing the same challenges as their peers who drop out, overcome the many risk factors present in their lives.

A recent study from Rochester, N.Y., “Educational Success in the Face of Adversity as Measured by High School Graduation,” does exactly that. A majority of the students who graduated in the Rochester City School District’s class of 2009 faced challenges similar to those that confronted the students who failed to graduate. For example, approximately 20 percent of the graduates were not living with either parent, but were instead in foster care, living with grandparents, or being cared for by siblings or friends. More than 92 percent identified themselves as members of a minority group, primarily African-American, Hispanic, or biracial. And 70 percent were receiving free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of their economic status.

The Rochester study focused on what helped students in such high-risk situations beat the odds and graduate. It found that successful students were able to take advantage of multiple protective factors, such as caring relationships with an adult, in many places—at school, in the neighborhood, at home, within social-service organizations, and others.

We cannot do much about family circumstances and poverty, but as educators we can commit to educating our children to protect them against the odds.

To describe those conditions, the study adopted the term “gateway protective factors.” Such factors operated in concert with one another to provide young people with a gateway out of adversity and help them achieve educational success as measured by high school graduation rates.

By giving students exposure and access to other forms of support, gateway protective factors enable them to overcome barriers presented by poverty, low expectations, family instability, and other life conditions. As important as any one protective factor may be, this study shows that students succeed when all such factors operate synergistically in their lives.

Moreover, the graduates in Rochester’s class of 2009 appeared to have benefited from them in a way dropouts had not. They had had at least one relationship with an adult who (1) believed in and held high expectations for them, (2) modeled successful behaviors, and (3) was consistently present in their lives. The graduates’ stories often included references to strong, robust relationships in multiple areas of their lives—at home, at school, among their peers, and within their communities. Often, one relationship had led the student to another, and when loss was experienced, the others provided a safety net.

While the graduates and the dropouts in the study faced similar challenges—both groups included students who had spent time in foster care, for example—one-on-one interviews revealed that the graduates’ relationships had served as gateways to other important mitigating factors. One graduate described how a track coach had made a significant impact by expecting the entire team to be successful and to go on to college. That relationship led this student to participate (on a long-term basis and in a meaningful way) in school activities, to set goals, and to gain exposure to peers with similar, positive aspirations. The coach’s expectations had gone beyond the track, to the team members’ academic achievement, and it extended into summer activities, with the coach connecting the students to employment opportunities and the community recreation center.

Internal assets—cooperation, a sense of community, self-efficacy, empathy, problem-solving, self-awareness, and the ability to set and maintain goals and aspirations—also served as mediating factors protecting students against risk behaviors and promoting positive academic outcomes. The study found that both graduating students and those who dropped out possessed the internal assets to succeed. Ironically, dropouts actually possessed a higher mean level of these assets than graduates, though the difference was not statistically significant. What this tells us is that, while internal developmental factors may be equal, other factors at play affect students’ ability to succeed in school. Internal assets alone will not guarantee high school graduation. Multiple mitigating factors are required if a student is to overcome adversity and achieve academic success as measured by graduation.

The evidence from the graduates in this study documented what we already knew: Regardless of children’s social and economic challenges, they all have the internal capacity to graduate from high school and will do so when the appropriate support to mitigate the risks they face is provided to them within their schools and communities.

For example, when the superintendent decided to keep schools open on a cold winter day, some were of the opinion that schools should close because children did not have warm coats and families did not have cars to drive to school. He countered that the solution was not to close schools but for the community to provide warm clothing for its young people. In conjunction with Volunteers of America and the city government, the district launched an initiative to secure warm clothing for children in need. Rather than playing to the deficit, this cooperative action provided the opportunity for students to be resilient against the barrier of poverty. We cannot do much about family circumstances and poverty, but as educators we can commit to educating our children to protect them against the odds.

Schools have tremendous “holding power” to influence students to stay in school by encouraging stronger relationships with teachers, coaches, and other educators who can help minimize the risk of their dropping out. In addition, school climates, policies, and practices all strongly affect students’ academic-achievement levels and sense of belonging. Use of a strength-based approach that helps students succeed despite adversity requires all of us—community, policymakers, parents and caregivers, school administrators, and teachers—to shift our focus to those factors over which we have control. For example, community members may not be able to directly influence a child’s family environment, but they can provide warm coats for a harsh winter day.

Schools have dominion over student discipline, student-educator relationships, rigorous and relevant curriculum, and academic and extracurricular support systems. Focusing on student deficits is viewing the glass as half empty, and it can lead to lowered expectations. Since Robert Rosenthal and Lenore F. Jacobson’s landmark study, “What You Expect is What You Get,” regarding the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy emerged in 1966, a wealth of research has documented both the immediate and long-term impact of educators’ expectations on students and their levels of academic achievement. A warning needs to go out to communities, parents, and caregivers not to fall into the self-fulfilling prophecy of low expectations.

Educators, families, caregivers, and community leaders must be aware that students who face multiple adversities must also experience multiple protective factors in order to succeed—as measured by leaving high school with a diploma in hand. What must be present is a gateway to success that is paved with protection. This protection must come from a variety of places—the school, the family, and even the White House—to guarantee a significant improvement in the graduation rate of students throughout our country’s urban school districts.

A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Beating the Odds in Urban Schools


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