Education Equity

How Can High-Poverty Schools Connect With Students?

In high-poverty schools, it's critical to establish caring relationships, supporting students through advisory programs, create smaller learning environments, and encourage participation in extracurricular activities.
April 20, 2016
A street parade is going on in a downtown area. A lot of girls in white shirts and green shorts are walking in the street with their hands raised, carrying golden pom-poms.
Photo credit: iStock.com/Jodi Jacobson

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools by William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge.

To learn, children and adolescents need to feel safe and supported. Educators in successful high-poverty schools have long recognized the critical importance of providing a healthy, safe, and supportive classroom and school environment.

This means all forms of safety and security while at school -- food if hungry, clean clothes if needed, medical attention when necessary, counseling and other family services as required, and most of all, caring adults who create an atmosphere of sincere support for the students' well-being and academic success. When students who live in poverty experience comprehensive support that works to mitigate the limiting, sometimes destructive poverty-related forces in their lives, the likelihood for success is greatly enhanced.

The Power of Caring Relationships

"If my kids don't get through this class, they won't graduate, and that means losing their dreams. We have to help them keep those dreams. . . we have to. It's the most important work we do." (Principal in a rural high-performing/high-poverty high school)

It's 6AM and three kids are waiting at the door for their math teacher to arrive. They had each received a call on their cell phones the night before reminding them that their work was late and that they needed to get in early to finish it before zero hour. Reminders like these are not unusual from their math teacher. The kids know that he keeps close track of their progress, and while not always appearing appreciative of those reminders, they show up.

Successful high-poverty schools provide protective factors that help build a bond between students and school. These factors include fostering caring relationships between adults and children as well as between peers, setting high expectations, and providing the support needed to meet those expectations.

"They didn't know my name; they didn't care if I slept in class or even if I came" is a statement that reflects a common refrain voiced by students in large comprehensive high schools of the United States. Yet this refrain is not heard in high-performing/high-poverty schools, where a premium is placed on relationships. These schools provide opportunities for meaningful involvement in school. To do this, they use specific strategies such as advisory periods, small learning environments, and student clubs and other extracurricular opportunities.

Supporting Students Through Advisory Programs

"I love my advisory -- it gives me a chance to keep track of where I am and know what is important for me to be doing. [My advisor is] also great to talk to. . . she cares about me." (11th grade student in the Northwest)

Positive, productive, and caring relationships are indeed possible in secondary schools; but they don’t just happen, as illustrated by the case of one small school in the rural western United States. Although it served fewer than 400 students, many of the kids felt disconnected from school. A principal's commitment to making the school more personal for kids led the staff to reorganize the daily schedule to include a well-designed advisory program. All professional staff members, including the principal, advise a small group of 18 to 20 students four days each week and stay with those students for four years, navigating their path toward graduation and beyond.

Begin by providing each advisor with a biweekly progress report for each advisee with the express purpose of staying on top of every student's achievement. Agree as a faculty to the timely entry of grades into the school's database, which in turn processes and provides the accurate biweekly reports for each advisor. This allows advisors to work on immediate needs with each student, particularly students who fall behind. The most effective advisories meet daily for at least 30 minutes, providing support in content subjects, homework, career guidance, and individual needs.

Learn more about advisory programs in Bob Lenz' Edutopia post Sessions for Success: Preparing Students for Life After School.

Create Smaller Learning Environments

"We are saving 90 of our kids that we used to lose every year when they moved from our middle schools to our large 1,700-student high school. Starting our new ninth-grade Academy is all we had to do!" (Superintendent in the West)

Many successful high-poverty schools provide additional protective factors, such as restructuring into small learning communities. These schools create focused learning environments that help keep smaller groups of students connected with each other as well as to a smaller group of core teachers throughout the day. In large or moderately-sized high schools, this approach may be in the form of ninth-grade academies. In effect, these academies "protect" freshmen from the impersonal nature of the large, comprehensive high school experience in which it is too easy to get lost. Academies are a strategy for easing the transitions from middle school to high school. Creating smaller learning environments and communities of practice has the potential to authentically connect students with adults every hour of every day.

Learn more about freshmen academies in the Schools That Work case study and video Freshman Orientation: A Year of Gentle Transition.

Encourage Participation in Extracurricular Activities

"When we removed the fees to participate and supplied the outfits, the number of girls who came out to join our cheer squad quadrupled!" (Principal in the Southwest)

Successful high-poverty schools provide a protective factor when they find ways to ensure that their students living in poverty will be able to participate in extracurricular activities. The importance of such participation to the creation of a bond between students and school has long been known. Whereas middle-class children have opportunities to develop their skills and talents through private lessons and participation in community-based activities in their elementary years, kids who live in poverty generally do not. Poverty poses a variety of barriers to participation for many students, such as the cost of fees, equipment or instruments, uniforms, and transportation home after participation.

In addition, kids who live in poverty often face responsibilities that prevent participation, such as holding down a job and caring for younger siblings. Highly competitive "cut policies," which dramatically reduce the number of kids allowed to make the team, pose another barrier to participation. Waiving fees, supplying equipment or instruments, covering the cost of uniforms, providing transportation, partnering with community-based entities to offer scholarships for specialized skill and talent development, and eliminating cut policies are a few of the ways in which schools work diligently to ensure that all kids have access to the benefits of extracurricular participation.

For more ideas on supporting students living in poverty, check out What Can Schools Do to Address Poverty? (the second post in this series).