Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Real Cost of Educating Low-Income Students

By John H. Scully — October 21, 2008 7 min read

Every year, on the wall outside a meeting room in the Making Waves Education Program’s after-school center in Richmond, Calif., students post by their names and photographs a list of the colleges to which they have been accepted. Students I remember as scrappy 5th graders, who performed academically two years behind grade level and had no thought of a life beyond their neighborhood, proudly display the names of some of the nation’s best colleges and universities.

But for every one of these students bound for Boston or Berkeley there are thousands like them nationwide who won’t make it through high school. Educators and policymakers have never really benchmarked what it takes and costs to do what is necessary for every student to be able to have a list of college acceptances by his or her name. Meanwhile, many of the most effective interventions and strategies to help students succeed are conspicuously absent from most urban schools.

Thankfully, certain programs and schools have had tremendous success with inner-city students. Studying them, we can learn more about how much high achievement costs, and how to scale up isolated successes.

Funding parity for high-performing charter schools should be a priority for policymakers at every level.

Nearly 20 years ago, I worked with the late Rev. Eugene Farlough in Richmond to develop a program to provide poor students in our lowest-income community with the same academic and developmental supports my own children enjoyed. Our program, Making Waves, began as a year-round supplemental education initiative offering services that extended well beyond the bounds of traditional tutoring. We identified student needs that are barriers to success and developed the services necessary to meet them—from academic interventions to nutrition programs and dental care. Over time, we added other new resources to the list such as extensive psychological services, bus transportation, and college advising and counseling.

Making Waves has served almost 1,000 students since 1989 in its after-school programs in San Francisco and Richmond and at its Richmond charter school. Virtually all our students (99 percent) have graduated from high school, and 94 percent have gone on to college. Fully 80 percent of students from our first cohort have attended four-year institutions, including Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Tufts, and the University of California system. Three-quarters of all students in our first cohort have graduated from four-year institutions. This stands in stark contrast to urban districts that graduate only about half their students.

The program succeeds partly because of the demands it makes on students and their families. We expect students to attend daily after-school support sessions, work closely with their tutors and counselors, and make steady progress. The program implements a zero-tolerance policy for unexcused absences from school and insists that students receive additional support when they earn grades of C or below. Parents and guardians are required to attend meetings with teachers and student caseworkers, and to participate in workshops that equip them to take part in their children’s education.

We don’t simply make referrals for students. The program has on staff a roster of psychologists, social workers, academic advisers, college counselors, and nutritionists.

Many of our tutors are high-performing local college students who come from the same backgrounds as our students and can share in their struggles and support their aspirations. They can speak honestly about the rigors of college-level work, the satisfaction and rewards that come from intellectual accomplishment, and the challenges that face inner-city students hoping to succeed in college.

Most importantly, Making Waves provides these services not out of a sense of charity, but because they constitute non-negotiable core functions of an educational system in the early 21st century.

The success of Making Waves and other programs like it offers public schools insight into effective policies and practices for at-risk students. Here are a few that educators should consider:

Extra time for learning. Across our programs, we are serving students from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., which provides them with opportunities to focus on academics and enables staff members to solve specific learning problems and work one-on-one with students. We also extend the school year so that students retain their knowledge and skills over the summer. Students in grades 5-8 attend a mandatory four-week, full-day summer program. High school students enroll in two- to three-week summer workshops that assist them in college applications, standardized testing, and summer classes they may be taking elsewhere.

Pay for performance. Urban schools can be destinations of choice for top talent if they are well run and produce results. Making Waves hires top administrators, pays above-average entry salaries, and courts professionals who have proven records of outstanding performance. We also reward teachers and staff members for their success in helping our “Wave Makers” achieve high standards.

Best location available. Some students are trapped in schools lacking academic rigor and a positive environment, so we provide tuition supports to help them go to the locations best able to help them. Those include both traditional public schools and charters, but also Catholic and private schools as well as special-needs placements.

A commitment to every child. With its broad range of services, Making Waves provides a level of commitment that students in big-city schools rarely experience. Graduates often cite the program’s “unconditional support” as being critical to their success, and on par with such benefits as a rigorous learning environment, stimulating interaction with academically dedicated peers, and generous financial aid.

Developing a sustainable model. Providing these services and achieving these results has proved to be less costly over time. By encompassing all the elements of the after-school program within the charter school model, we can make the program available to more students, offer them a more significant dose of services, and reduce the cost of delivering the program. Making Waves spends about $21,000 a year on each student in the after-school program, including the cost of tuition at private and parochial schools. We are lowering the cost for delivery in the charter school framework to about $15,000 per student per year when fully implemented, including guidance and a broad array of services and after-school and summer support. This amount, we believe, represents the full cost of what it takes to educate students to succeed in college at a high level. And it is less than what some cities, such as Boston; Newark, N.J.; New York; Trenton, N.J.; and Washington, are already paying in per-pupil costs.

Making a rigorous education available to every low-income student in this country will require that charter schools and traditional public schools work together, and that policies will support schools that demonstrate their effectiveness. Today, in many communities, even the most effective charter schools receive 40 percent less in per-pupil financing than other public schools. Funding parity for high-performing charter schools should be a priority for policymakers at every level.

These high-performing schools need to work more closely with public schools, and can be incubators to develop entrepreneurial talent for charter and noncharter schools in urban districts. We plan to expand the number of charter schools we operate around the academic leaders we recruit and train. But there is no reason that programs like ours cannot work more closely with traditional public schools to provide long-term training to their leaders to bring promising models to scale. For too long, education entrepreneurs have made themselves direct competitors with public schools, rather than partners in student success. And school districts have criticized effective charter models rather than finding ways to adopt their best practices.

We also must encourage the federal government to increase its support for students from impoverished backgrounds. It is unrealistic to think that we can get out from under this cycle of poverty, and its broad societal effects, at the current low level of investment we make in urban schools nationwide. If our program is any indication, a few more thousand dollars per pupil aimed at addressing a myriad of student needs will be recouped many times over through economic growth and increased productivity.

Creating a sense of shared mission among all schools and service providers that help our most disadvantaged young people is long overdue. After nearly two decades of making mistakes and fine-tuning programs, we understand the key elements of intervention, management, and support that could transform performance of low-income students. It is time to quit debating and start making these services available to all young people. Only then will we solve the nation’s most important challenge.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Real Cost of Educating Low-Income Students


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