School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Let ZIP Codes Predict Students’ Futures

By Rebecca Wheat — September 29, 2015 7 min read
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Recently, a man I know was murdered in a rough inner-city area. It was heartbreaking. When I told my daughter-in-law about his mother’s very difficult upbringing, she said, “Some people never seem to get a break.” As educators, we are the people who often try to provide a “break” to students and their families. We try to give voice to vision and educational endeavors that will consistently override stereotypical conclusions about children’s and families’ abilities that are based on the environments in which they live—environments that are typically distinguished by ZIP-code demographics.

As educators, we can invalidate and change the predictability and power of ZIP-code demographics. Consider the ZIP-code dynamic of two children who live 10 blocks apart. Based on the ZIP codes, which identify their communities and residences, these children have a 15-year difference in their life expectancies. Should this concern us as educators? Absolutely. There are things we can do to lessen this gap that predisposes life expectancies and success or failure rates for certain children and families. We can create a schematic of three circles of action that lend support for classrooms and school environments. These circles of action can make a huge difference in the behaviors, expectations, supports, and successes experienced by children and families.

As a former principal and a coach for principals and principals-in-training at the University of California, Berkeley’s Principal Leadership Institute, I was fortunate enough to work with many leaders in education. I got a chance to see schools that not only greatly improved test scores, but also increased family involvement and often made a range of medical, dental, and psychological services available for families. How did the principals of these schools decide what steps to take?


Three years ago, I started working on a book about the principals I had observed over time. I wanted to capture the essence of their roles, and to write about their work and experiences. At the same time, I wanted my thoughts, insights, and observations to be more than just anecdotal. I wanted a chance to interview these principals in depth and to understand more fully how they had changed their schools while also dealing with the effects of substantial social challenges—poverty, inadequate housing, and poor health services, to name a few.

I further recognized that the abilities, capabilities, and life expectancies of many of their students were already predicted, statistically, based on where they lived. Could the power of these ZIP-code demographics be changed? If so, what might happen if principals worked from a theory of concentric circles, the inner circle being the classroom; the second circle being the entire school environment; and the third circle being the broader community, in which principals could assess resources and services available for students and families? Could principals conceptualize change, make a plan, and transform their schools into productive, welcoming institutions? I believe that the answer is an emphatic “Yes.”

Principals who are able to lead transforming schools start by having a deep understanding of the importance and power of relationships. In school settings especially, building relationships is the first priority. These principals understand that no one wants to be on the outside looking in, that everyone wants to be on the inside. They comprehend Maya Angelou’s words: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

These principals know how to support teachers and are frequent visitors to the classroom. One principal I interviewed visits every one of the school’s 17 classrooms almost daily. Classroom walk-throughs by principals might be brief, but they provide an opportunity for supportive observations and conversations with teachers. When these principals had something constructive to say, it was taken very seriously because these teachers felt that their principals really knew their classrooms and that there was mutual understanding of classroom and school goals.

Principals who are able to lead transforming schools start by having a deep understanding of the importance and power of relationships.

I also fully came to believe that collaboration is the essential key to change. In schools where collaborative work is understood and used to advantage, time is set aside each week for grade-level teachers’ meetings. Teachers plan together and have time to discuss individual children. In these schools, all of the children in a kindergarten class, for example, are viewed as “their” children—the children of all these grade-level teachers. This kind of collaborative effort allows teachers to share the workload and to develop and coordinate effective strategies that benefit both the children and their families. Families love that their children are with a team of teachers who assess the educational setting and make collaborative decisions based on the best interests of the students and families.

How does Maya Angelou’s admonition act as a guide for principals’ educational philosophies—and, ultimately, as a way to enhance the whole school community? How does this simple guidance underscore the possibility that student achievement can be predicted based on residency statistics and other demographics?

First, the principals I studied were guided to be very visible within the school environment. They were in the schoolyard before classes convened, during recess, and after school. They chatted with families and often solved issues on the spot, before the issues became greater problems. The principals learned the names of all the children attending their schools and connected with them outside the classroom. They were able to observe those who were lonely, sad, or bullied. They were then able to discuss these children with other teachers and offer support in ways that addressed the needs of particular students and families.

Family events were important to these principals as well, and the principals were strategic in how they conceptualized and planned family activities. Each topic addressed by these family activities was thoughtfully planned, based on input from the families themselves. The topics included interesting and relevant subjects, such as family science, positive discipline, and how to handle the stress of the holidays.

Various racial and economic groups were represented in the family activities, and as participants came together, they got to know each other and realized more concretely that they had the same important vision in common: a desire for their children to have the most rewarding school experiences possible. More and more, people were on the inside contributing to the overall goals of the school.

The principals I observed are among those who see the big-picture aspects of their job. They understand the devastating effects of poverty. They do not glibly make pronouncements such as, “All children can learn.” While they know that all children can learn, they also know that there is a huge correlation between poverty and achievement. So they do everything they can to connect families with supports and social services.

Some principals are fortunate enough to be administrators of community schools that offer health, dental, and psychological services. One such principal I interviewed described how she and the school’s supervisor of social services work together. The supervisor takes the most challenging cases, and the interns she supervises take the remaining cases. They meet together to discuss all cases so that useful, achievable, sustainable goals can be developed.

The principals who provide the most effective social services within their school environments are adept at bringing public and private agencies together. They are skilled at preventing “turf” battles, and they develop structures and systems to help agencies, teachers, staff members, and parents work together. An outstanding example of such a structure is The Collaborative at Rosa Parks School in Berkeley, Calif. There, staff members, parents, and a variety of agencies come together once a month to share information and discuss ways in which all participants can support one another. The most effective principals in doing this are tactful, appreciative of the services, and able to model grace and civility at meetings.

These principals, and others I have studied and admired, are doing their very best to tear down the power of ZIP-code predictability. They know there are no magic bullets here, but they also know there are strategic actions that, if taken, can create profound and positive transformations in educational environments and the experiences of children. They understand the theory of concentric circles and how to use it effectively to grow relationships between the classroom, the school as a whole, and the broader community that will benefit all students and families.

These principals understand the power of relationships. They value and support teachers and understand the power of collaboration. Most of all, they know that building a wide and cohesive community for learning—one based on common interests and universal dreams—can “give a break” to families and students in any ZIP code.

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as ZIP Codes Needn’t Predict Students’ Futures


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