The Facts: Poverty Does Matter
Shortly after I wrote a blog post in late April about the data showing the effect of poverty on student academic achievement, I received an article from OnlineUniversities.com listing and describing the ten poorest high schools in the United States. The data sadly correlates the level of poverty and student achievement in a manner that is in line with the data Stanford University has gathered through years of research around contributing factors in student achievement. The surprise is that not all the ten poorest high schools are traditional public schools: one is a charter and one is a virtual high school. And they too have trouble helping students succeed, once again illustrating that school structure – charter, traditional or virtual – is not the determining factor in educating children to their highest potential. A sampling of the schools on the list—
- Tomorrow’s Builders Charter School, East St. Louis, Illinois. This school was ranked the worst performing public high school in the U.S. by Neighborhood Scout and with good reason: none of the schools’ 181 students were proficient in math and only 3% were proficient in reading. The city has been in a slow and steady decline; has one of the highest violent crime rates in the country; and forty percent of the residents live below the poverty level.
- Albany High School, Albany, Georgia. With an 11% unemployment rate, nearly 28% of residents living below the poverty line, and the fifth highest poverty rate in the U.S., this school made the Georgia Department of Education’s list of worst performing schools in the state. Help has come in the form of a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education, so there’s hope.
- Shannon County Virtual High School, Batesland, South Dakota. According to census data, Batesland is located in the second poorest county in the nation with a poverty rate of 45.8% of families and 39.2% of the population as a whole, including 39.4% of children and 100% of seniors. Having no traditional high school, the community opted for a virtual school which is cheaper to run and doesn’t require transporting students. The poor quality of schools and the general poverty of the community has taken a toll on students, and during the 2009-2010 school year, nine students committed suicide.
- The Alternative Learning Institute, New Orleans, Louisiana. In 2011, 91 of the 103 public schools in New Orleans were in the failing category, making it the lowest performing school district in the state. This school serves some of the poorest communities in New Orleans, with 95.7% of its student living close to or below the poverty line, only 4% of whom scored proficient in math and reading.
One of the top ten poorest high schools in the list gave cause for hope:
- Porter High School, Brownsville, Texas. With the highest poverty rate in the nation, a 12.5% unemployment rate, and 94% of its student qualifying for free or reduced lunches district-wide, this school has the added challenge of a large population of recent immigrants. This school defies the odds with standardized test proficiency rates of 70% for math, 79% in readying, 77% in science, and 95% in social studies. In recognition of this achievement, the district was awarded the $1 million dollar Broad Prize for Urban Education, which will be divided among the district’s seniors for college scholarships.
No one thinks that poverty should be used as an excuse for not providing the best education possible to all students, and Porter High School proves that progress can be made. However, the facts (data!) speak for themselves: when human and financial resources are lacking, it’s difficult for the most committed educators to overcome the deck that poverty stacks against the students they serve. When hope is gone and students can’t see a better life, the job of the educator is made impossible. We all would like to believe that the U.S. is the land of opportunity for all our young people, but as the authors of the OnlineUniversities.com piece concluded, “The argument that hard work will allow any individual to escape the circumstances of his/her birth is a myth; you can only pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have boots to begin with.”
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