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
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'
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.
- 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.
- 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),
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: http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed448968.html
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: http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed414615.html
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:http://www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=22size.h19.
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.