At Risk Low Income Students: Readiness Is All

Summary: In the race to improve the academic skills of low income students various “soft” skills need address as well. Student self-perception and personal vision, possession of a viable road map to success, and social skills pertinent to socioeconomic advancement may determine success or failure of a more narrow focus on academic skills only.

In significant measure reform in the schools in is a question of how to bring the academic performance of low income students up to the level of their more economically enfranchised fellow students. Across the political spectrum the current debate about income inequality in the long run must also be about how to use schools to improve the job readiness of low income kids.

In my experience as a high school counselor over many years, I have always been astonished by the elusive inability to thrive academically apparent in low income students of mine who have otherwise amply demonstrated the wit and intelligence necessary to flourish in a school setting. The repartee among some of these students, the nimble give and take in elaborate rituals of social one-upmanship, frankly often left me standing in their wake wondering what the heck had just transpired. Apparently I, child of the middle class, had a different set of skills.

Such exposure has left me with the conviction that somewhere in the nexus of perception, habit, set of social skills, and self-image lies a composite low income student less of a fit to success in schools than their middle class counterparts.  Turned into a question, how does one craft interventions that will redirect the energies of kids like this, who desire to be successful despite behavior indicating the contrary?

We are advised by controversies in the social science community to be wary of arguments that subtly or overtly “blame the victim” in describing the cultural byways behind low income student difficulty to thrive in school.

In fact, the “culture of poverty” discussion has revived in recent years, however with advisement against such normative statements. For those interested in more academic discussions, I recommend “Reconsidering Culture and Poverty” in the May 2010 edition of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Clearly, first of all, the heterogeneity of low income folk predicts correctly that many low income students do succeed in school. The pertinent question is why do some succeed and others do not.

For those who do not I tend to focus on a few characteristics relatively easy to extract from a much more complex web.

First, to be successful, one must perceive oneself as capable of being successful in school. Hope is a variant of the same point. With some regularity, low income students who do not succeed in school also have a parent or parents who haven’t succeeded in conventional ways.

Children indelibly take on the patterns of the adults around them. I look no further than myself to understand the preponderant influence of parental experience on the child. I found myself majoring in economics in college largely I now think because my father worked in a bank, and so outside my awareness my father contoured my own choice of major. I chose the familiar, or can it even be said that I chose?

In the crunch of my work as a counselor, I felt the most important intervention I could do with many low income kids was to help them envision themselves as a successful student first in high school and then in higher education of some kind. When they first entered my office, too many could not do so.

Secondly, to be successful, one has to have strategies that can lead to success. So a student who can see themselves as capable may still not understand the value of goal setting or how to study on one end, or even how to apply to higher education and financial aid on the other, and so shut down because no viable road appears in their future vision.

Third on my particular list, and without delving into a much more complicated discussion, there are cultural habits within middle class America that are a fit for success not only in school, but in the subsequent larger job market. Personal patterns that confer membership in a lower economic class setting, by contrast, can simply be different than those that confer success in school and in the later wider job market.

For example, in a program worth paying attention to in my former school, adult mentors have been careful to teach their male charges to shake an adult’s hand in greeting, while looking them in the eye.

Though these issues exist alongside the impacted test skills that schools struggle to raise, they are very different, and have long been included in the purview of quality teachers.

In turn these quality teachers – and counselors and administrators alongside them – have taken low income children under their wing, and in one way or another helped them to understand those visions, those skills, and those habits that can give shape to vague dreams. Unfortunately, in the current school test obsessed climate, it is more difficult for school officials to act in these remedial, time honored ways. But the need for such attentions remains, and may explain why nationally, despite over a decade of fervent reform, test scores remain sluggish.

Remedy can once again exist within schools. While the hire of more teachers and more counselors fit this bill, creative solutions for some purposes can also cost less. The Harlem Children’s Zone has flourished by intervening at an early age in a family’s life, in large part by coordinating existing social services with that of the schools. In different ways the Logan Square schools in Chicago use parents as mentors. King County’s Treehouse uses young adults as “Educational Specialists” to form relationships with troubled foster youth. The Seattle schools have used Americorps/ City Year volunteers to improve the poor attendance of at risk kids.

Within special education programs, instructional aids help with instruction, but also form relationships with kids that keep them going in school.

When the Washington State Legislature contemplates the State Supreme Court imperative to more fully fund schools, I suggest we look also in the direction of bringing on board more of these types of relationship mentors, as well as counselor and teacher types. Similar to some medical models, teams of counselors, teachers, administrators, adult mentors of various access, and instructional aids might work together to address the various “soft” psychological and sociological issues that together tell the real tale about the wobbly attachment of low income youth who are at risk of failure to thrive in school.

Counselors may deal with or refer the more deeply seated issues of trauma of various kinds that surface as more is learned about a given student. But in many cases, the attentions of less trained mentors chosen for their interpersonal skills and for their own school success may bring a sympathy and a relationship in which low income students can see their own positive future reflected, and from which to learn how to navigate the strategic skills and the habits that will get them there.

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One Response to At Risk Low Income Students: Readiness Is All

  1. Deb says:

    Good stuff. You are an inspiration. How did you fight the culture day to day for so long as a school counselor. I am not sure I have it in me…

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