When Reform Addresses Poverty, Not Just Schools

Cross-posted from Gatsby in L.A.

By Ellie Herman

So I’ve been running around town for the last six years yelling “the problem isn’t bad teachers, the problem is poverty” and finally somebody did something about it. Okay, it wasn’t just because I was yelling. In the factionalized world of education, most people outside of the Ed Reform camp hold the same view: that the fundamental reason students of color in low-income communities fare less well than more affluent students is the trauma caused by poverty, which often leads to overcrowded living situations, parents in crisis, transient families, violence in the community, lack of access to medical care and sometimes lack of food, and until we improve those conditions, the achievement gap will not change (as indeed it has not despite over a decade of Education Reform and several decades of other various education crazes.)

Now the Department of Education is testing the theory by investing heavily in a program called Promise Neighborhoods, loosely based on Geoffrey Canada’s ongoing experiment in the Harlem Children’s Zone. Billed as a new kind of education reform, Promise Neighborhoods turn schools into neighborhood hubs of community services, including health care, tutoring, academic enrichment, college counseling and intensive outreach to involve parents. Los Angeles received the largest grant of any city: $30 million for five years, to be matched by private grants and administered by Youth Policy Institute, a non-profit whose mission statement is “to reduce poverty by ensuring families have access to high quality schools, wrap-around education and technology services, enabling a successful transition from cradle to college and career.”  The new funding targets 19 LAUSD and charter schools in East Hollywood and Pacoima and has a stated goal of “creating a cradle-to-college-and-career pipeline.”

They have five years to pull it off.

In order to maintain their funding after five years, the Promise Neighborhoods need to demonstrate growth on 23 indicators measuring everything from traditional data like test score gains, graduation rates and attendance to more unusual data like the number of parents who report reading to their children three or more times a week or the number of students who feel safe travelling to and from school or who consume fruits and vegetables or exercise regularly. Some of these indicators will be extremely tough to affect through social services alone, like the number of students who transfer out of a school, something that can be affected by family transience, or the number and percent of students who have internet access at home.

It seems to me that the most meaningful measure is also going to be the hardest to pull off: the number and percent of students who graduate with a regular high school diploma and then get a postsecondary degree, vocational certificate or other industry-recognized certification or credential without the need for remediation (emphasis theirs.) I actually don’t even know how you measure that in five years, much less accomplish it; getting large numbers of students through college without remediation is the big Kahuna of public education, something that no school in a high poverty neighborhood, as far as I can tell, has ever accomplished with much success.

Fascinated by the program, I went to visit Jorge Cortez, YPI’s Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood (LAPN)Assistant Director of Community Schools in Pacoima. Jorge, who was born in El Salvador, came to the United States when he was two and was the first in his family to graduate from college, earning a Master’s in Public Administration and starting his professional life as a teacher. Disheartened by the instability of public education, he decided to face the problem head on and landed as a YPI community school coordinator connecting students, parents and community members to wrap-around services, rising in the organization over the years.

Jorge appears undaunted by the dizzying list of 23 indicators. “Any time we receive a grant we’re ecstatic,” he tells me. “That’s an opportunity for additional resources that we’re going to be able to bring to the community.” He’s aware that transforming a school into a community hub will take time. “It’s a challenge to connect kids and families with services. The lack of public transportation in this area is really striking. We rely on word of mouth. We have promotores and promotoras who are local community members going to churches and other community spaces to do outreach. We also have a community schools team at each of our target schools that work tirelessly to provide access to quality programs. The outreach seems to be working; all their classes are full, with waiting lists.

Right now, their school programs focus on getting students college and career ready by providing wrap-around services like after-school tutoring, college counseling and support for the parents and families of students. Each school has a community school coordinator, a community advocate and a health and wellness coordinator. “Our approach is holistic and comprehensive in the sense that we’re targeting the whole family, not just the child. It’s the cradle to college and career pipeline emphasis.” Though the program is similar to LAEP’s (click here for this blog’s coverage of that program) in that it brings services to a campus and involves school-site coordination, it is significantly more extensive in scope because it targets whole families from the moment a child is born, using the school as a center to bring communities together rather than as the primary object of focus.

The program he’s most excited about right now is called “Padres Comprometidos,” or “committed parents.” “It’s a parent workshop that introduces the American education system to immigrant parents, mainly of Latino origin, that have never been exposed to such information,” Jorge says. “It also discusses adolescent development and behavior, the importance of literacy, and the importance of critical reading andcritical thinking as skills needed to be college ready. We also teach parents how they can play a supportive role by modeling positive behavior and communication with their children, along with college-going information like A-G course requirements and financial aid.”

He smiles when I ask him about the 23 indicators and whether he thinks they’ll be able to measure the effect of something like Padres Comprometidos. “The impact of these programs is difficult to quantify. The quantitative data is there, but the qualitative data is the most difficult data to capture and many times it is the best data to tell a story and show impact. We can say that a parent attended 10 sessions and grasped content knowledge, but the true impact that such programs make on a family? That is the most challenging to quantify. We’re trying to get there.”

The program is incredibly exciting to me because they’re actually doing what so many of us have longed to see in underserved communities. The key issue is time here because so many of these “qualitative” measures are extremely difficult to articulate, much less measure in the next five years. (Make that four, because year one is already over.) Will the Department of Education yank the funding if students, say, fail to eat five fruits a day or still don’t have internet access? If the next president is a Republican, will the whole thing be scrapped? My hope for this program and similar programs is that we, as a nation, hold our collective breaths and give them the time they need to take effect. I know—we don’t have time to wait. But education’s purpose is to change lives, and lives take place over, well, a lifetime. Maybe we won’t have to wait quite that long. But I hope we can find enough patience to give programs like this time to grow.

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