Spotlight Exclusives

Schools face the challenge of equal opportunity poverty

Ed Finkel Ed Finkel, posted on

Report on Illinois districts tracks rise in poverty, recommends how to surmount the challenges

When Jamie Craven was interviewing to be superintendent of DeKalb District 428 in north central Illinois, one of the topics that came up repeatedly was the interrelated concerns about rising student poverty and falling student achievement. It’s a subject that stubbornly refuses to go away in school districts around the nation.

“This conversation has been going on since [No Child Left Behind] was launched,” said Craven, who assumed the DeKalb post last month. “The stated purpose of NCLB has been to close the achievement gap. Low-income was one of the areas that has long been a focus. Here we are 15 years out and still having the same conversations.”

But for non-urban districts like DeKalb, those conversations have taken on a new urgency. A recent report out of the University of Illinois at Chicago and its Center for Urban Education Leadership, co-written by education professor Steven Tozer and assessment specialist Paul Zavitkovsky, examines changes in poverty levels and student achievement in 55 districts around Illinois during the past 15 years, many of them in areas that might defy the stereotypes of struggling schools.

“During the early years of the No Child Left Behind era, ‘low-income school’ was mostly code for an urban school that served high concentrations of non-white students,” the authors write in the report, titled “Upstate/Downstate.” “But big jumps in low-income enrollment in communities that are still predominantly white have changed this situation in a fundamental way.”

Cities have never had a monopoly on economic challenges and the notion that poverty is a predominantly urban issue persists only through racial and ethnic stereotypes and lazy journalism. Driven by globalization trends, digitization and increasing automation, “Economic distress is an equal opportunity disrupter,” Zavitkovsky said in an interview. “For the foreseeable future, low-income enrollments are going to be part of the woodwork that no one is going to be immune from, except the wealthiest of school communities.”

DeKalb’s Environment

DeKalb has faced numerous challenges during the past 15 years, according to Craven and other district leaders. The “Upstate/Downstate” report shows a rise in low-income enrollment from 24 percent to 57 percent between 2001 and 2016, with white enrollment down 27 percent, Latino enrollment rising 14 percent and African-American enrollment up 9 percent.

The composite test scores for grades 3 through 8 show that those reading above grade level had declined from 47 percent to 29 percent, while those reading below grade level had risen from 30 percent to 50 percent. In math, the figures were somewhat less dramatic: those above grade level fell from 45 percent to 32 percent, while those below rose from 36 percent to 49 percent.

District officials expressed some skepticism about the usefulness of comparisons over time, given the shift from the Illinois Standard Achievement Test (ISAT) to the PARCC assessment instituted as part of the Common Core State Standards process.

“There are some ways in which we can use both pieces of information to look at trends across time,” said Amy Luckner, assessment research and MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports) coordinator. “We have to do that with caution because they are two different assessments.” But Luckner said DeKalb takes the results seriously, “taking those trends for what they are, with those cautions and caveats.” (Tozer and Zavitkowsky say they found the tests to be reasonably similar, despite what many district officials believe.)

With one high school, two middle schools, eight elementaries and one early childhood center, the district also has grown from 5,300 to 6,500 students in the past 15 years. “And our buildings are feeling it,” Craven said. “The district itself and the community are obviously evolving. The poverty number, the low-income number, has jumped dramatically.” And the additional students haven’t brought additional property tax revenue, he adds, noting that DeKalb approved one housing permit for all of 2016.

DeKalb has not seen the kinds of dramatic declines in employment that other smaller Rust Belt cities have experienced, district leaders said, although flagship employer Northern Illinois University did undergo layoffs during the Great Recession and has frozen employment for several years since then.

Tyler Elementary School principal Andria Mitchell noted that when the city of Chicago tore down high-rise public housing and made vouchers for Section 8 available, some families opted to relocate as far as DeKalb. Other families might have come from the suburbs, priced out by higher rentals. “There’s always a direct correlation between achievement and income level of the community,” Craven says.

The district has been working to help students not only academically but also with social and emotional issues, Mitchell said. “I don’t think it’s just about reading, writing and arithmetic anymore,” she says. “Our teachers are more tuned into, ‘This baby needs to know about … our school in-house food pantry.’ We didn’t have that years ago, but we recognized there was a need.”

District 428 has been rolling out professional development on the impact of trauma on students, providing thoughts on how to respond to the resulting social and emotional needs in the classroom, Luckner said. “We look at the academic numbers, and we take them very seriously,” Mitchell said. “By the same token, we also recognize that we’re about educating the whole child.”

On the academic front, a different strand of professional development is guiding implementation of a 1-to-1 device initiative for students third-grade and older, which Craven and others believe will help teachers implement individualized instruction. “You take a student where they’re at and move them using teaching strategies that address how a student would best learn,” said Cristy Meyer, director of student services.

Blooming in Bloomington?

District 87 in Bloomington, in the central part of the state, has faced similar challenges as DeKalb and many of the other 55 districts studied by the UIC report. Between 2001 and 2016, low-income enrollment in Bloomington grew from 36 percent to 56 percent, white enrollment declined by 22 percent, Latino enrollment was up 9 percent and multiracial enrollment grew 10 percent.

Composite test scores for grades three through eight between 2001 and 2016 showed those reading above grade level fell from 46 percent to 32 percent, while those below grade level rose from 35 percent to 48 percent. In math, those above grade level fell from 51 percent to 32 percent, while those below grade level rose from 30 percent to 50 percent. The district encompasses one high school, one middle school, six elementaries and an early childhood center, with 5,400 students and 400 faculty overall.

Superintendent Barry Reilly, who has been in the district for 27 years and began as a health teacher, also expressed skepticism about the test result comparisons and notes that parent resistance has grown over time, leading to a decline in the numbers of students who take the PARCC in the first place. “You get this pushback,” he said. “How do we account for that in the scores? I don’t know.”

The home of Illinois State University and the national headquarters of both State Farm and Country insurance companies, Bloomington, like DeKalb, has not seen major reductions in employment aside from the closing of a nearby Mitsubishi plant, Reilly said. State Farm has cut jobs somewhat, and the community definitely felt an impact from the housing crash of the late 2000s, he added.

Between the university, insurance firms and two major hospitals, Bloomington and its sister city Normal, Illinois, enjoy a swath of well-paying, white-collar employment but also has a sizable low-income population, with little in between, Reilly says. “Bloomington has a mix of both, which sets up challenges for the schools,” he said. “You’ve got kids who are well-prepared to learn, and those who are not, through no fault of their own.”

Lower-income children return home to households often headed by single parents, who sometimes work in the evening, Reilly noted. Older children are expected to watch their younger siblings. “They’re the provider, so homework is not high on the priority list,” he said. “We do some training on those kinds of things, but it’s a battle each and every year to help our staff understand that.”

The lack of a state budget in Illinois for two years, a slow-motion disaster that was finally resolved this summer, added to those challenges because social service providers cut back or eliminated their offerings, Reilly said. “We have become more of a mental health provider than ever before,” he said. “We don’t have more social workers or psychologists, so teachers have had to work through those challenges.”

District 87 has provided some training on trauma-related issues, Reilly says, and the district is working to address needs like food and clothing. “It goes straight to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” he said. “If they’re not being met at those basic levels, school takes a back seat.”

Bloomington has begun a 1-to-1 device initiative starting in third grade, with sixth-graders and older allowed to take devices home, and the district also now provides free internet access for low-income children in their homes, Reilly said. “That provides a level playing field, so when a kid goes home, you don’t have to worry about whether they have access,” he said. “How that ties to achievement, we don’t know yet.”

Lastly, the district has partnered with outside social service and employment agencies both to broaden awareness of what’s happening in the district and to create internship opportunities for teens, Reilly said. “If we can provide kids with role models, especially ones that look like them, that will get them to believe, ‘That could be me.’ ”

 Upstate/Downstate Solutions

Ultimately, Tozer and Zavitkovsky believe that fighting against the undertow of poverty-related challenges to maintain or improve student achievement requires persistence and thoughtful decision-making “We’ve got pretty good evidence, both from the literature and this study, that districts don’t have to be held hostage by their demographics,” said Zavitkovsky, a leadership coach at UIC’s Center for Urban Education Leadership.

The co-authors document the fact that while “throwing money at the problem” doesn’t necessarily solve it, resources do matter. “The reason school resources by themselves don’t solve the problem is because other things matter, too, like school leadership and high-quality instruction,” said Tozer, founding coordinator of the Urban Education Leadership program. “It depends on how they spend the money.”

The report shows that schools in Chicago and its suburbs overall did more to improve achievement in the face of declining family incomes than those in the rest of the state. But that disparity, in turn, correlates with regional differences in local property values and resulting per-pupil spending.

And that correlation “raises powerful questions about the relationship between district resources and a district’s capacity to improve school effectiveness,” the report states. “Resources do not determine school outcomes, but they do influence them in important ways.”

Historically among the most unequal states in terms of school funding, due to a heavy reliance on local property taxes, Illinois seemed poised to take a step toward reducing those inequities in late August. Both houses of the legislature passed a bill adding $350 million in state funding that will be divided per a formula based on the numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as other factors such as special education. If that dollar amount is cut in future years, the law stipulates that wealthier districts will lose their funding first, providing those districts a political incentive to lobby for said funding to continue.

In any case, to succeed in spite of changing demographics, districts first and foremost need well-prepared, well-supported leaders empowered to put solutions in place that meet their individual communities’ needs, Zavitkovsky said. While best practices are well worth taking into account, he said, “The kinds of things that build capacity in schools and districts are so specific to context that they require local leadership to orchestrate.”

The quality of classroom instruction matters more in lower-income schools, since such schools cannot lure the best teachers with top salaries. “You have to be able to develop the capacity of the teachers you’ve got,” Tozer said. That requires “job-embedded professional development in which teacher learning becomes the central part of the culture.”

That professional development needs to take a deep dive into the technical core of instruction, Zavitkovsky said. “In every single high-achieving country in the world, a substantial portion of instruction involves kids having to work together to solve problems that they hadn’t been explicitly taught to solve,” he said. “That’s almost unheard of in the U.S., except in high-achieving or improving schools.”

Schools also need to engage with families and understand the issues that students bring with them to the classroom, which can be addressed through professional development around trauma issues and social justice, Tozer said. “You can organize a school, despite the external environment, to achieve things that other schools aren’t achieving.”

Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Illinois. 


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