Help! My child attends a high poverty school

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, CHFI, CFE, PI

Parents of affluence in the Washington, DC metro area tend to enroll their children in exclusive Sidwell Friends Quaker Day School rather than DC public schools. Their decision may be in contrast to the hundreds if not thousands of families who are faced with a similar dilemma—but differing outcome.

Due to the declining economy, drop in home values, high unemployment rate, skittish stock market will you need to cut back on the family budget? Find yourself forced to enroll your child in a high poverty, urban school? Not sure if you reside in a high poverty, urban district?

In 2007, Buffalo, New York; Detroit, Michigan; and Cincinnati, Ohio ranked among the nation’s top 3 poorest cities with a population of 250,000 or more based upon data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Action Plan for Parents

1. Seek out a school that provides a safe environment. According to the National School Board Association (2008), 49% of urban parents surveyed viewed their child’s school as one of the safest places in the community. That said, look to school administrators to have installed video cameras at entrances, hallways, bathrooms and the perimeters of the school grounds; one-push alarm system at external entrances and exits; student identification card scanners, and metal detectors.

2. Demand that school officials promote a caring school climate. Does the school principal point to the professional guidance counseling unit, school psychologist, and/or social workers as proof of a caring climate? Dig deeper. You are looking for process and procedures that are interwoven into the fabric of the entire school—touching upon everyone, not mere stand-alone departments. Positive behavior management programs, active student support teams, rapid response to crisis intervention, periods allocated for advisory and team building are just a few examples of tangible school programs proven to promote a school climate conducive to learning.

Other articles you might like

3. Differentiated instruction. All peas in the pod are treated the same way? If you hear something like this during an entrance interview, ask about differentiated instruction. Are small learning communities adopted into the academic program? They would look like this: academies by grade level, vocational/career interest and/or level of aptitude (honor’s program and Advanced Placement classes). You may hear about looping whereby teachers stay with the same group of students for a period of 2-3 years. Kids who feel bonded with others, perform better in class. School attendance improves markedly when students can connect the relevancy of school to their everyday lives.

4. Academic intervention. Does the school take a hands off approach to academic intervention? Do they believe that homework is enough? Think that classroom instruction emphasizing the traditional lecture format will do? Push harder. What about programs to keep kids on track? Tutoring initiatives before school and after school. Or, interactive computer programs utilizing academic games, videos and periodic assessments aligned by subject matter, strand and standard? What procedures are in place to alert the teacher to academic performance deficiencies? You need a school official to talk about formative and summative assessments. Let them offer a timetable or schedule in which teachers routinely quiz students and assess performance utilizing a formal/objective grading assessment system. You are looking for instances in which teachers offer frequent feedback; areas of strengths and deficiencies plus guidelines for improvement. Such exchanges to students and parents should occur well before the marking period comes to a close.

5. Extracurricular activities and after-school programs. A while back, Montana State University Extension Service (2005) found that students involved in extracurricular activities had a higher likelihood of becoming leaders, were more willing to complete task assignments, were more vocal, had higher high school graduation rates, and a higher probability of earning salaries of $50,000 or more. Some research point to higher self esteem and enhanced school status among peers. In any event, look to the school to develop a well-rounded graduate—a student who has been exposed to all that life as to offer, the rewards and challenges. Finally, while you’re at it, check to see if the school offers a stipend, administrative premium to teachers who sponsor the extracurricular programming. If they don’t, call the superintendent, the funds are being diverted. If they do, get the name of the sponsor of your child’s particular interest area. Hold the sponsor to task. “Oh, you haven’t met the students yet and it’s December, although you’ve been receiving stipends since August?” You get the point…

6. Family involvement. Even though studies have shown that parent involvement results in improved academic and behavioral outcomes for children, some schools located in a high poverty, urban setting may not have a PTA. Their PTA may be very weak or it serves as window dressing for the benefit of the principal’s annual performance review. What are some of the danger signs? PTA meetings are held during the day, on Friday evenings (committed parents use this day to wind-down from the week, not attend PTA meetings), minutes of the meetings are not forthcoming, lack of annual scheduling calendar, poor advance notice is given, and/or no one seems to know the name of the staff member who serves as the parent-liaison. The list goes on. If this is the case, step right in. Go ahead and volunteer. Make some changes. No one can deny you the opportunity as a parent of an enrolled child the chance to make a positive difference in the life of kids.

This should be enough to get you going. Remember, there is a perception gap between what students of low-performing schools in a high poverty urban area think about their school and what outsiders think (American Sociological Association, 2008). If you have a sense as a parent that things could be better, go ahead. Ruffle some feathers. But, activate your warrior skills on an adult level— discuss with your spouse, other parents of enrolled children. Negotiate, band together, and navigate the terrain with responsible adults only. Hold those with school positions accountable.

Shield your kids away from the fray. They may have transitional issues of their own. Keep them focused on academic performance, extracurricular school activities, and/or outside interests. All they need to know is that everything is fine. To quote Mister Rogers, “it’s just another day in the neighborhood.”

Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at:

Web Resources

Cincinnati ranks third in poverty among major cities nationwide

The Importance of Extracurricular Activities in a Student’s Life