Poverty is a scourge across America. With 11.6 % of the population (7.9 million people) officially classified as impoverished, the US has the highest poverty rates among the 25 wealthiest nations in the world. Poverty rates are even higher among America’s children. According to the most recent census, 16% of children were in households that were at or below the poverty rate. However, it must be noted that poverty is not a race-neutral problem. It disproportionately impacts children of color, with 26.5% of Black children, 20.9% of Latino children, and 20.6% of American Indian children experiencing substantially higher rates of poverty than White (8.3%) and Asian (7.7%) peers (Center for American Progress, 2021).
As the authors of The Community Schools Revolution remind us, poverty is more than an economic issue; it is also an educational issue. Our public schools bear the brunt of responsibility for addressing the needs of poor children, and more often than not, they do so without adequate resources. For many poor kids in the U.S., the public school they attend is the only place where they know they will be guaranteed heat in the winter, a warm meal (maybe two), and for the lucky, access to a school nurse. Obviously, children in poverty need more. Many also experience homelessness and housing insecurity, they are often exposed to violence and trauma, and they are less likely than their more affluent peers to have access to academic support outside of school from a tutor or college educated parent. It seems obvious to point out that hungry children are more likely to have trouble concentrating (according the US Department of Agriculture, 5 million children in the U.S. regularly experience food insecurity), but policymakers rarely acknowledge hunger as an obstacle to learning. The evidence is clear: children from households in poverty frequently underachieve in school and are less likely to graduate from high school and to enroll in college (Reardon, 2013).
The authors show us that community schools can be part of the solution to this complex and deeply entrenched problem. They describe how such schools work, and how the relationships that are forged between schools and community, make it possible for schools to mitigate and compensate for the effects of poverty. Part of the way some of the community schools featured in this book do this is by committing to not only providing services, but to empowering and engaging families as well. These examples show that when the concerns and interests of parents are considered as programs are devised -- when they also play a role in determining what services are provided and are invited to actively participate in programs that serve their children -- they are better able to support their children and the schools they attend.
It is important to acknowledge that mitigating a problem like poverty is not the same as fighting to eliminate it. However, the reason why community schools are being embraced throughout the country in rural, urban, and even suburban school districts is because they represent a viable strategy for addressing the wide variety of needs that too often undermine the wellbeing of children and their ability to perform academically.
In this book, we are reminded that the burden of addressing the needs of poor children shouldn’t be left entirely to schools. The political will and commitment to reduce poverty must come from nonprofits, churches, and local businesses, as well as city, state and federal governments. It is important to note that the U.S. made its greatest gains in closing gaps in student achievement during the 1960s and early 70s, when an array of investments in social supports and economic opportunity were made as part of the “War on Poverty” (Barton & Coley, 2010). Though the “war” ended long before the battle was won in the mid 1970s, the community schools revolution has now emerged in many areas as an attempt to resume the fight.
This book presents good news. Through detailed case studies, we see that there is evidence that when significant supports are in place -- afterschool programs, health and social services, mentoring, etc. -- schools can play a role in improving learning outcomes and advancing opportunities that promote social mobility (Chetty & Chenowith, 2018; Blankstein & Noguera, 2016). This is why this book is so timely and of critical importance.
Twenty-one years after the adoption of No Child Left Behind, it is clear that the law and kindred policy initiatives aimed at increasing school accountability that accompanied it have failed to achieve their grand promises. We continue to leave millions of children behind, both academically and socially. We see the results of our failures in the large numbers of Americans who are “structurally disenfranchised” and unable to support themselves and their families. Policymakers in some states have begun to adopt more far-reaching strategies including community schools and the expansion of early childhood education, broadening the focus of education in an attempt to reduce the number of people trapped in a cycle of poverty.
I don’t generally subscribe to conspiracy theories, but I don’t believe that the failure of schools that serve poor children of color is accidental or merely the result of professional incompetence. In a wealthy, technologically advanced nation such as the United States, the only logical reason why failure among schools serving poor children is so common is that we simply haven’t been able to generate and sustain the will to meet the needs of kids. This is especially the case when the children are Black, Latino or Native American. Our negligence is of course a byproduct of our history, and the persistence of systemic racial inequities appears “normal” to many Americans today.
The authors of this book call for using community schools to disrupt a status quo that imperils our future. I agree wholeheartedly. To meet the challenges of the present moment, our country needs a broad and bold vision, institutional engagement, collaboration across sectors, political leverage, and incentives if we are to get serious about truly leaving no child behind. To produce the writers, technologists, scientists, musicians, plumbers, farmers, and entrepreneurs that we will need to create a more just and equitable future, we have to go all in to fight poverty. Community schools are one of the ways we can do that.
Pedro Noguera is dean of the Rossier School of Education at USC. For over 30 years he has worked as a researcher in higher education and as a teacher and advisor in schools. He has also served in various policymaking roles. He is the author of several books, including, with A. Wade Boykin, Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap. Along with Dr. Lauren Wells, he led the Broader, Bolder Approach to school change in Newark from 2008 – 2012.