Professing Education
Dec,2002.Vol 1.No.1 P.1-P.4

Characteristics of Schools/Programs that Successfully Educate Low-Income Students

Faustine C. Jones-Wilson

Professor Emerita, Howard University

The issues of poverty along with the educational woes suffered by so many children from visible minorities should be of great concern for any society that espouses democracy and equality as central virtues within its political and educational mission. In terms of schooling, the underachievement of low-income children and children from visible minorities still persists to a disturbing degree. To be sure, there is no shortage of research outlining the characteristics of successful corrective programs. Yet, there continues to be ongoing difficulty in implementing and maintaining the elements that could cause more schools to be effective. Why do not more schools replicate those that are successful? Heading into the year 2003, what will it take to effectively educate America's low income children and children from visible minorities?

A wealth of information on this last question is available in the pages of the Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR). JESPAR began publication in 1996 under the auspices of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), a joint venture of Johns Hopkins and Howard Universities. JESPAR, a quarterly publication, provides excellent research-based information related to improving the education of students placed at risk, many of whom are African American, as well as case studies of effective programs and schools. (See, for example, Robert Slavin, et al., 1996; and Amanda Datnow & Sam Stringfield, 2000).

I will focus on just one important factor that reduces the power of poverty as it relates to schooling, as identified by current researchers. That factor is small schools. Craig B. Howley, Marty Strange, and Robert Bickel's (2000) research examined about 13,600 public schools in Georgia, Montana, Ohio, and Texas. They found that "small schools help reduce the academic risks of poverty by breaking the usual negative bond between poverty and achievement." Indeed, Howley said, "the strength of the relationship was about half of what it is in larger schools" (Keller, 2000). Small schools were found to cut price of poverty in half. If small schools are not to be had, then the school-within-a-school concept could apply. If we are interested in improving public education in our school districts, we need to become advocates and lobbyists for smaller schools. Our scholarly research should be focused on investigations of these settings. In such places students are well known by their teachers and their peers; teaching/learning is personalized; and students talk with their teachers as people. The setting becomes more like a community than a typical factory-like school. Teachers want to be in these schools, so that they may foster a deeper commitment to the school and to the development of its students.

The entire school experience is altered, not just one or two aspects of it. Deborah Meier (1995) gave a detailed account of this transformation in her book, "The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America From a Small School in Harlem". Mary Ann Raywid (1996) also, has contributed greatly to knowledge about small schools, schools-within-schools, and schools-of-choice. What is a small school? Optimally, a small elementary school enrolls 300-400 students, and a small high school enrolls between 600 and 900 students (Irmsher, 1997).

The best-known small effective high school, Central Park East Secondary in Spanish Harlem, began in 1985 and still exists in 2002. Here, collectively the staff make school policy and design the curriculum and program. The staff has autonomy over teaching and learning. Instruction is planned around themes that cut across traditional subjects. Teachers meet for lengthy weekly sessions to plan, collaborate, analyze, evaluate, and solve any problems that arise. These procedures go well beyond the usual staff development programs/activities and teachers' meetings.

The school climate stresses cooperation and community participation where mutual respect is emphasized. Students participate actively in their classes and in the total life of the school, thereby increasing their commitment to it. They are made more responsible for their own education than in a traditional school. Students feel as though they really belong.

Teachers communicate regularly with the parents of their students, and parents are involved in their children's education. They help to assure that their children perform well and stay out of trouble.

Scheduling is changed so that two-hour time blocks replace the old-fashioned 45 or 50-minute periods. This permits more "time on task," that is, time spent with the material to be learned. An advisory system permits groups of 15 students or less to meet daily for study and discussion. This stimulates student involvement, and reduces voluntary absenteeism. Subject matter mastery is emphasized, such that mastery is to be demonstrated through portfolios, rather than just standardized tests. Students are taught to think more critically, which prepares them to engage in socially useful and personally satisfying life endeavors.

Given my present concern and the brief description of a familiar small school that has worked successfully for 17 years, during quite trying times, what can professors of education do to ensure that no child is left behind from the current reform movement? The following guidelines/suggestions emerge:

1. Focus some of your scholarly research on small schools and/or schools that successfully educate low income children and children from visible minorities today. Contribute to the knowledge base through your publications about this matter.

2. In your classes, as you prepare school personnel _ teachers, administrators, counselors, etc. _ include information about successful schools and how to establish and maintain them. Work with your colleagues to ensure that the students whom you prepare are well qualified in terms of knowledge, methods, attitude, and spirit _ including open-mindedness, willingness to change, and working cooperatively as a team member instead of "lording it" over one's isolated classroom as a specialist.

3. Support NEA/AFT and state-level efforts to obtain the federal funding necessary to make real the new law signed by President Bush that by 2006 every public school teacher will be "highly qualified." This means full state certification or passing the state teacher licensing examination. It includes having an earned degree in the teaching field or passing a state test in the subject area being taught. Inner city schools are quite unable to attract and retain qualified teachers. In 2002 some 34% of teachers in high-poverty school districts lack full certification (Chase, 2002). Many teachers who accept jobs in the inner city remain there only for five years or less.

  1. Advocate and lobby for powerful incentives that will make school people willing to change what they have been doing in their schools and classes. School people are reluctant to change the habits they have formed. Two of such incentives might be: (a) give teachers the right to design and operate their programs; (b) build in release time for teachers' collaborative planning and analysis.
  2. As an advocate of high-quality education, and of "educating all the children of all the people," lobby individually and through your professional organizations at the local, state, and national levels. Lobbying efforts should call for smaller schools, and for long-term improvements such as improving teachers' salaries and working conditions, excellent pre-school arrangements, all-day kindergarten, and mandatory summer school for those students who need it.

There is so much that needs to be done to substantiate the need for small schools staffed by devoted, qualified teachers who can and will successfully educate the children who come from low income families today. Even more needs to be done to educate all school personnel who will work with these children effectively over time, and make of them the productive, caring, contributing citizens that they will need to be in their adult lives. We must do this both for the sake of our children as well as that of the larger society. I urge you to do your part, as a professor of education, to contribute to the greater educational good of these children and of our society.


Chase, B. (2002). President Bush's promise. The Washington Post. Published 2/17/02, p. B4.

Datnow, A. & Stringfield, S. (2000). Working together

for reliable school reform. JESPAR, 5 (1&2), p. 183-204.

Howley, C.B., Strange, M., & Bickel, R. (2000). Research about school size and school performance in impoverished communities. ERIC DIGEST. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED448968) Retrieved March 28, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Irmsher, K. (1997). School size. ERIC Digest, Number 113. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED414615). Retrieved March 7. 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Keller, B. (February 9, 2000). Small schools found to cut price of poverty. Education Week on the Web. Retrieved April 12, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Meier, D. (1995) The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.

Raywid, M.A. (1996). Taking stock: The movement to create mini-schools, schools-within-schools, and separate small schools. Urban Diversity Series. New York: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Slavin, R.E., Madden N.A., Dolan, L. J., Wasik, B. A., Ross, S., Smith, L. & Dianda, M. (1996). Success for all: A summary of research. JESPAR, 1(1), 41-76.