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How Can Low-Income Students Succeed?

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Poverty is complex, but one tool that is known to crack the poverty cycle is an education. Although many low-income parents may want their child to go to college, they may not know how to get them there. In some family cultures it can also be difficult to make a convincing argument to students and their families that an education is a better investment than having a student work a part- or full-time job to support the family in the immediate. However, for workers who don't hold a degree in higher education, job opportunities will only continue to narrow. By 2018, the U.S. is expected to have more jobs than qualified applicants. In the next 5 years, we will need 22 million new college degrees, but will lack 3 million of them, from associate's degrees to PhDs.

To keep up with job growth in America, more students and their families must realize early the value of an education and the need for a support system that guides the student all the way through post-secondary education. The following are a few ideas on how low-resourced areas can become nurturing environments that get students invested in their own learning after the school bell rings.

One Person as Advocate

If a disadvantaged child has an advocate--to teach reading, to take an interest, to hold to a higher standard, to ask questions, to hold accountable, to be both demanding and supportive, to care - a child's chances for success are far greater. This advocate can be a parent, a teacher, a tutor, a mentor, a coach, a person from a religious or other organization of interest, a neighbor and/or an extended family member such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.

When I taught in the federal prison system in Denver more than ten years ago, I realized that all of the men I taught--Native American men in maximum security and men in the "camp" who would be released within a year--were fathers. My experiences reflect some national statistics on parents and men in the prison system:

• 2.7 million children are growing up with a mother or father behind bars.
1 in 28 children has a parent in jail or prison, compared with only 1 in 125 just 25 years ago.
• 68% of all males in state and federal prison do not hold a high school diploma. (If you're interested in learning more about the school to prison pipeline, check out Tavis Smiley's blog Education Under Arrest: Taking America Out of Its Comfort Zone).

A few years later, when my company, LifeBound, taught numerous classes in the Denver Housing projects, many of the households were run by single mothers with the exception of several immigrant families.

Books and Resources

The U.S. has the highest percentage of children living in single parent homes in the world. Nearly half of those children are living in poverty. Children in poverty generally watch more TV, take fewer trips to the library, and have less cognitive-enriched experiences than their more affluent counterparts.

Second and third grade teacher Justin Minkel, the 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network, taught a class of 25 students; 24 of which were at the poverty level and 20 English language learners. He shares in Education Week how one student, Melinda, was changed by a collection of 40 books she acquired in his class. Melinda had one book at home when she started his class, was abused as a very young child, lived in poverty, and had a mother who was illiterate in English and Spanish. Within two years of starting her personal library, she went from a kindergarten reading level to a 4th grade reading level. Minkel says the entire class of 25 students who were part of his book project made more gains in reading than he experienced in any other class.

Though it is not a panacea for ending poverty, closing the book gap is one simple, effective, and inexpensive initiative that can bring opportunity to an entire family. Small changes, like reading a book, turning off the television, and reflecting at the end of the day, are all small actions that can make great gains.

School's in for the Summer

The achievement gap is the divide in achievement levels between lower-income and higher-income students. More than half of the achievement gap can be attributed to unequal access to summer learning opportunities. The gap begins before students even enter school, and can eventually lead to low-income adolescents dropping out of high school and not entering college at a much higher rate than their more affluent peers.

For many low-income students, their only access to basic learning materials, such as books, games, computers, and Internet service are provided through the school. (Not to mention schools often provide the basic necessity of having breakfast or lunch every day.) Kids in low-income areas need to have productive, measured, and meaningful learning experiences over the summer months. Schools and community organizations can be safe havens during the break that provide:

• Summer learning workshops
• Book lending services
• Parent engagement programs

Reinvent Libraries and Community Centers

Students spend less than 15% of their time in school. To add value to the learning that happens in the classroom, it's imperative that students have out-of-school learning opportunities available to them in the community as well as a home environment that is invested in learning.

If schools are to be effective given the current budget climate, education must be community-based. Places like the public library, community centers, and the housing projects can be where enrichment classes for students are held, tutors are available, and after school and evening mentor programs can thrive.

One example of innovation in the community comes from a Denver clinic, La Casa/Quigg Newton Family center, which serves low-income, Spanish speaking families. For the last few years, the clinic has provided "wellness packages" to parents of 6 month olds, 9 month olds, 12 month olds and 2-5 year olds when parents came in for a check-up. Reach Out & Read was part of the center's birth to five year initiative, while the LifeBound book, Study Skills, was given to parents of middle and high school students to promote literacy and help English language learners improve their language skills. Parents as well as their kids improve their literacy with these initiatives.

Last summer, Omaha Public Library launched a summer reading program with a grant from the Sherwood Foundation. This program reached 1,700 students, 1,000 of which were given a choice of any LifeBound book which was theirs to keep. A subsection of these students were provided with free enrichment classes which were taught by a local college professor. These are both examples of how creative leadership across community areas can provide a strong buttress to students in need.

Finally, a middle class or privileged perspective that expects low-income parents to be more involved when they haven't taken care of their basic needs for food, shelter, finances, education, and safety is unrealistic. If we have that awareness, we can, as a society, provide resources to serve their basic human needs and in so doing, help many parents to be more stable, self-sufficient, and competent.

Next week, I will take a closer look at the hierarchy of needs for low-income parents. The week following that, I will share some of the stories of students who have beat the odds, achieving self-sufficiency, and adult success despite being raised in poverty.

If you have a success story of what is working for low-income parents, students, or teachers, please share that below. Thank you for caring about this issue.