The teachers at Alice Coachman Elementary School in Dougherty County are quick to tell you the students are smart. They may lack foundational skills but not intelligence.
The declaration captures the promise of so many children in poverty and the challenges they confront, as well as the schools they attend. I visited the school as well as another one in the county, Morningside Elementary, with several colleagues earlier this month. We chose these two because the Georgia Department of Education recognized the schools as “Beating the Odds,” their students have made more progress than those in similar schools around the state. Both are also graded “F” by the state based primarily on their students’ test scores. They are targeted for intervention as part of the state’s new school turnaround initiative. We talked to school leaders, teachers, community members and parents during a two-day tour of the Albany area. Their stories confirmed what superintendents across the state told us earlier this year: Poverty imposes significant barriers to student learning. They also described students persisting and teachers seeking new ways to increase their learning.
Eighty-seven percent of students at both schools qualify for direct certification for assistance programs including food stamps, so most are from families with incomes no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty line or $26,546 for a family of three. Only a handful of schools across the state have higher concentrations of poor students.
The educators and community members we visited drew a bleak picture of poverty’s impact on students. Students at both schools move frequently, which disrupts their education and sends ripples through their classrooms. Many don’t eat nutritious foods outside of school, subsisting on junk food.
These students often enter school far behind in language development and literacy skills. They’re not read to at home and don’t have conversations with the adults in their lives who could build their vocabulary and their knowledge about their communities. One educator lamented, “We have to teach them to speak in complete sentences.”
Students rarely go to zoos, museums, aquariums or on other adventures that expose them to new ideas, new places and different future possibilities. Some never see the inside of a grocery store or a movie theater before they start school.
Parents often struggle to support student learning. Many work at jobs that don’t allow them time off to attend a parent-teacher conference or school event and they can’t afford to lose an hour or two of pay. Some don’t know how to help their children with homework or had bad experiences in schools themselves and feel disconnected.
I also heard hopeful stories. Teachers and school leaders celebrated their students’ progress. They told of recent gains in literacy among kindergartners and described research projects by fourth graders that demonstrated their growing ability to tackle complex subjects. They shared examples of students’ burgeoning creativity and positive behavior that bolsters both schools’ climate.
These hard-won gains reflect ongoing and new efforts to accelerate student learning. One example is Self-Organized Learning Environment which Alice Coachman is piloting. Teachers pose questions to students on a variety of topics, which they research, work in teams to generate findings, and present to their peers. Both schools are using new initiatives to better meet students’ social and emotional needs.
A common refrain we heard is more needs to be done to help these students reach higher levels of learning. Educators noted the need for a cohesive curriculum across subject areas and schools, which the district is taking steps to address. Teachers who are passionate about working with the children in these schools and who set high expectations for students are critical. And they had a wish list of items they believe would make a difference for their students, including:
- An intensive summer program with authors, poets, artists, and other creative people who can guide students through a process of developing a comprehensive project
- Enhanced salaries to recruit and keep great teachers and paraprofessionals
- Small class sizes so teachers can provide more individualized instruction
- A reading specialist to provide one-on-one instruction to struggling students as well as guidance to teachers to deepen their knowledge and skills
- Field trips and other opportunities to expose students to new people, places and ideas
- Access to mental health specialists who can serve students whose needs go beyond school professionals
These requests did not seem extravagant as I listened to educators and community members make the case for them, particularly not for the children in Alice Coachman and Morningside. They seem like essential ingredients to their success in school and eventually in the workforce. We’ve invested a lot in accountability systems, which grade schools, as a motivator for change. Accountability is important but we need a broader conversation that accounts for the broad array of students’ needs. Taking steps like those outlined by educators in Dougherty County are at least as critical.