Thanksgiving in the Hood: A War on Poverty is More Productive Than a War on Principals, Teachers, Families and Kids.

Teacher in a suburban school: “I can’t wait until Tuesday, I need the Thanksgiving break.”

Ed: “Tuesday, isn’t your school open on Wednesday?”

Teacher: “Most of my kids took Wednesday off, families flying somewhere for the holiday, visiting relatives, and a few days in the Caribbean, the school board decided to close on Wednesday.”

At the other end of the economic spectrum, in an inner city school, Tuesday was a thrilling day; a principal had a contact with a clothing company who donated fifty winter jackets to the school.

“We had to construct a consent form for the parents so they didn’t think their child stole a coat, the kids looked stunned, one of the kids asked, ‘Is it Christmas?'”

The school was deep in the hood, the principal tells me all his caregivers receive some type of public assistance, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) or food stamps, very few have intact families, usually a single female parent or grandmother or relative; its commonplace for a child to be shuttled from house to house. Some kids live in shelters, group homes or in the foster care system.

“We’re do lead the city in something,” the principal told me, “It’s homicides, plenty of my kids have someone in their family incarcerated, the only white people they know are cops, social workers and teachers, few have ever traveled very far from the projects.”

“For most of my kids the best meals of the day are school breakfast and school lunch, there are no supermarkets in the neighborhood, lots of Chinese take outs and fast food places, I thought about giving out turkeys until I realized that many apartments in the projects didn’t have working ovens.”

I told the principal about the school in the suburbs in which kids flew off for Thanksgiving. He replied, “I have to give the parent roundtrip metro cards to get them to come to School Leadership Team meetings – bus fare – five dollars is a lot of money for my parents.”

And the gangs, “All of my kids have some sort of gang connection, some are active members, others live in a Blood or a Crip building, gang membership is generational, kids belong to the same gangs their parents belonged to.”

Over the Bloomberg years the city created two categories of schools, “winners” and “losers” based on the geography of poverty and policies that separated the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

David Bloomfield, in Chalkbeat writes,

In his renewal plan for struggling schools, Mayor de Blasio has mistakenly fallen for a myth usually promoted by his conservative adversaries: that failure is the fault of individual schools, not the school system.

But the main reason the myth is attractive is because it is an easy way to avoid looking at systemic problems. Research demonstrates that the scale of New York’s “failing schools” is caused by district policies that lead to concentrations of highly mobile, low-achieving students. Too often, New York City has pre-determined “winners” in its school policies without admitting that other schools will lose in a trumped-up competition to cast the central administration in a positive light.

Inexorably, the city opened charter schools that attracted parents with greater social capital and concentrated poorer students in fewer and fewer schools; creating a downward spiral of low achieving schools.

Education Week, reporting on a study by the Center for NYC Affairs writes,

Poverty is not just a lack of money. It’s a shorthand for a host of other problems—scanty dinners and crumbling housing projects, chronic illnesses, and depressed or angry parents—that can interfere with a child’s ability to learn.

Researchers found that 18 factors in a student’s school and neighborhood strongly predicted his or her likelihood of chronic absenteeism and the student’s scores on New York’s accountability tests that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Taken together, these indicators create a measure of the “risk load” in each of the Big Apple’s elementary schools.

If you think about the community context, you would be able to better understand when students come into the school building, what they are carrying with them,” said Kim Nauer, the education research director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, and an author of the study.

18 Risk Factors
The Center for New York City Affairs identified 18 school and neighborhood indicators that contribute to high risk in urban schools with high concentration of poverty. The indicators are intended to help administrators and policymakers find areas for improvement, such as high teacher turnover or student suspensions.

School Factors:
1. Students eligible for free lunch
2. Students known to be in temporary housing
3. Students eligible for welfare benefits from the city Human Resources Administration
4. Special education students
5. Black or Hispanic students
6. Principal turnover
7. Teacher turnover
8. Student turnover
9. Student suspensions
10. Safety score on the district’s Learning Environment Survey
11. Engagement score on the Learning Environment Survey

Neighborhood Factors:
12. Involvement with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services
13. Poverty rate according to the U.S. Census for the school’s attendance area
14. Adult education levels
15. Professional employment
16. Male unemployment
17. Presence of public housing in a school’s attendance area
18. Presence of a homeless shelter in a school’s attendance area

The New York study also recommends that Mayor Bill de Blasio work with all schools to analyze child-welfare agencies system-wide in light of the indicators. “I hope it will be helpful in making [school] principals aware of the questions they should be asking,” Ms.Nauer said. “The whole endgame here is to make school as positive as possible for the little guys and make sure they are not in a cycle of failure by the time they get to middle school.”

I am not implying that poverty is an excuse; poverty is a culture that impacts the lives of children and families. Schools cannot be expected to thrive when the community around the school is in chaos. Yes, we need the finest principals and the best teachers, professionals that commit to a career, not a few years before they flee to law school or roles in school policy creation. The state has created examinations to separate the wheat from the chaff, to set a higher standard for prospective teachers; the problem is we have no way of knowing if the exams will produce that result. We do know that prospective Afro-American and Hispanic teachers fail the exams at a considerably higher rate than white aspirants.

The results of a decade-old study are disturbing,

… we actually know very little about how differences between a teacher’s race and those of her students affect the learning environment. This study makes use of data from a randomized field trial conducted in Tennessee to produce higher-quality information on this controversial subject than has been available previously. The results are troubling. Black students learn more from black teachers and white students from white teachers, suggesting that the racial dynamics within classrooms may contribute to the persistent racial gap in student performance, at least in Tennessee.

(Read more about the study here and here).

At the same time our political and educational leaders ignore the disparity in education funding across the state, children in the highest wealth districts receive the highest per capita funding, New York State, disgracefully, leads the nation in the inequitable funding of schools.

Mayor de Blasio’s emphasis on Community Schools is a beginning, not a solution. Until the feds, the state and the city change verbiage to deeds schools will struggle. A beginning is jobs. A beginning is removing the moats that isolate the poorest of our neighbors. The lesson of Finland should not only be the quality of teachers, the lesson of Finland should be the absence of childhood poverty.

The rate of childhood poverty in our nation is pitiable,

A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, turned up some alarming statistics about child poverty … the United States ranked 34th out of the 35 nations, beating out only Romania.

Governor Cuomo, sadly, fails to understand that blaming teachers, or tweaking the teacher evaluation plan will have no impact, aggressively leading a new “War on Poverty,” is the only path to severing generational poverty.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday, an opportunity to reflect on the bounties of our nation, and an opportunity to sit down at the table with our family and be thankful. Yes, sadly, some of us can fly away to white sand beaches while others shiver in cold of the oncoming winter.

Instead of seeking solutions our leaders are obsessed with test scores, an obsession that is pathological.

The Campaign for Educational Equity report, “How Much Does It Cost? Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low -Income Students,” provides a pathway for schools, I suggest the governor and the commissioner commit themselves to a comprehensive approach that acknowledges that spanking principals and teachers or threatening parents is futile, the governor appears to be changing our state motto from “Excelsior” to Dante’s description of the Inferno, “Abandon Hope All Yee Who Enter.”

10 responses to “Thanksgiving in the Hood: A War on Poverty is More Productive Than a War on Principals, Teachers, Families and Kids.

  1. The Lesson In Finland….is a fallacy. It is based on a socialistic approach which in turn is dependent upon “tracking”. Students who complete grade 8 are tracked into various categories as deemed appropriate by the gov’t. Those tracks will cover the gambit, from science. law, technology to blue collar professions, including civil service. Once tracked a student has no appeal and is virtually locked into a specific curriculum mandated by the state. To a lesser degree, Israel practises the same approach. As for white kids learning better from white teachers, and black kids learning better from black teachers, my 35 years of teaching in Harlem and Bed Stuy tell me different. Learning is dependent on school tone, culture, norms , achievable goals, and high expectations. This type of all inclusive environmental health & stability when coupled with administrators who promote and know how to create such an environment and who have teachers that are capable of working in such an environment will always have a high learning yield.Short of that we will always have the same old tired and sorry lame educational theocrats who want to blame achool failure on the neighborhood. It is a myth to believe that because of poverty, black or latino households will not support their chil’d educational growth and development, when they are invited to partner along. They will get them looseleaf books, supply money for class trips, see that they have proper asssembly clothes, and of more recent times, see that they have internet access. If it were true that underpriveleged families were not willing to do these things, then I need for someone to explain to me,how a black kid learns more from a black teacher, and less from a white teacher. Black parents don’t believe in that notion for 1 minute.I know that to be true from personal experience. Early in my career I functioned as a guidance counselor, and among my duties was the task of placing transfer students into classes as they arrived. Most of the transfer students were from the south, many from the rural south. The process was simple enough. I gave them a 15 minute reading comprehension survey exercise. Based on their responses I would place them in the appropriate class for their grade eligibility. More often then not the parent would then ask me if the teacher was black or white. When I explained to them that we didn’t make placements using that criteria, the parent requested a white teacher, because they wanted their child to be taught from a different perspective then what they had already experienced in the south. Some went a bit further and told me that they believed that white teachers were better educated. Be that as it may, its not the color of the teacher that promotes a positive learning experience, but rather the approach to learning and instructional delivery that an entire school is geared into. Danielson is right on when she talks about LEARNING RICH as a vital component to the process. I don’t think she has a position on whether or not black kids learn better from black teachers, probably because she knows its hogwash…


    Thanksgiving has certainly put some of us in an unusual mind set, however long it lasts.

    While some enjoy the fruits of a few days of preparation, cooking, travel to be with families and a stupefying meal, others stand on a corner, or wait to wipe down a car exiting from a car wash.

    The increasing number of businesses opening on Thanksgiving tells this story as well, if one looks behind the obvious. Some years ago a meal study was done of students eating habits on the day before the holiday and Thanksgiving itself. The lack of school breakfast and lunch on Thanksgiving and nothing-absolutely nothing-to replace them was a huge surprise to the investigator. It was so heartbreaking that the survey and the data collection were not repeated after the second year.

    The willingness of older kids to stay at school beyond their day, instead of running home to play outside says it. The number of address changes of a student in one year says it. Cheap but flashy jewelry on a kid without adequate clothes, cell phones on a hungry child, large screen TVs hanging on a wall where the fridge has only condiments says it; all talk to attempts to feel like they are living some kind of normal. It is today’s equivalent of ‘lace curtain’ apartments of poor immigrants but magnified a hundredfold.

    Let’s break the schools because they are a mirror of the deepening bottom of society. If you don’t like the mirror image, break the mirror.

    Andrew, isn’t it a lot more fun playing with the rich kids? They have the good toys! You look like you don’t know that they will drop you faster than a burning hot pot when you are no longer useful.

    PS I was ‘the investigator’


  3. The only way to end poverty is by improving education. The best way to address the issues raised in this column is to open admission for every school to every child through supervised lotteries.


  4. I disagree somewhat with Eric Nadelstern. I would like to see community services included in neighborhood schools: health care, dental and vision screenings, English classes and adult literacy services in the evenings.
    I teach at a specialized school, one that is probably the most diverse in the city. I would not want it to jettison its auditions. There are schools with programs that center on students’ special interests and talents, vocational, scholastic, and artistic. I am sure that there is room for these schools in the more than 1,800 NYC schools.
    What is needed is targeted and appropriate sevices for those who need them. When children arrive from abroad not speaking English they are pushed immediately into a classroom. This happens at all times of year. Some of these students have not attended school in their countries of origin. Would it not make more sense to have such students attend a special program for a couple of months to help them adjust to their new situation? They could then enter a regular school at the next reorganization and not be so at sea when they arrive.
    We get so caught up in testing and school ratings and blaming teachers and other educators that we lose track of the people involved. Let’s use some common sense.


  5. A suggestion: Please go into your dashboard and activate the share buttons so we can Tweet this out and share on other sites like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Etc. Thank you.


  6. Thanks Lloyd, I activated the share buttons

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Eric

    There you go again blaming educators for the student academic outcomes and their poverty and not the other way around. However, what can one expect from a Joel Klein drone like you that caused the chaos in the NYC public schools in the first place?

    Poverty is not an excuse its a fact and when these children live in unsafe communities, have dysfunctional families, lack adequate health care, and are food insecure. How can you blame the education system without fixing the problem of poverty in the first place?

    During your time as Deputy Chancellor you gave us the useless, money sucking Children First Networks, the incompetent and vindictive “Leadership Academy Principals” and the “Fair student funding” fiasco that forces schoolsto hire the cheapest and not the best teachers for their schools. Thank goodness you no longer in a position to further damage the public schools anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If Eric Nadelstern really wrote, “The only way to end poverty is by improving education. The best way to address the issues raised in this column is to open admission for every school to every child through supervised lotteries.”

    If you HONESTLY think that will end poverty, then here’s an invitation to the real Eric Nadelstern.

    Meet me in front of a camera and let’s televise a debate on this topic. You versus me and maybe two or three invited guests (each) to keep us honest. I’ll even ask my wife to operate the camera she bought to film a documentary she was working on—her MFA is in film. We’ll set up the debate in our living room in California near San Francisco.

    After the filming, the debate will be edited and then go live on YouTube for the whole world to watch.

    Or better yet, maybe we can convince a local public television station to televise the debate and broadcast it live through their network. You bring two people, and I’ll find two people and well have a round table discussion, just the six of us in front of the country.

    In fact, I understand that Michelle Rhee, who has changed her name (I wonder why) lives in Sacramento—not that far from where we live—and maybe she would drive over and join your team.


  9. This is an excellent post- one of the best I’ve seen in summing up the entire problem. It’s truth! Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I’m sharing it widely in TN.


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