A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles' Center for the Transformation of Schools finds a student's quality of life is linked to his or her academic performance. Where they live, access to healthy food, and quality of air and healthcare are among factors that influence academic performance and the schools they attend.
Black students in Los Angeles — who are already faced with higher suspension rates, attend racially isolated and impoverished schools, and are subject to other academic disparities — are also more likely to encounter health and environmental disadvantages, be impacted by food insecurity, and not have their basic needs met.
Steps districts can take to improve outcomes for black students include hiring more black educators, embracing alternative strategies to punitive discipline, working toward school integration, and expanding access to afterschool and summer academic enrichment programs.
While this study is focused on the Los Angeles area, national studies have also confirmed poverty significantly contributes to the U.S. achievement gap. The UCLA study suggests that the "accumulation of disadvantage" that black students face in particular must be addressed in and outside of school in order to improve educational and developmental outcomes.
To help overcome these barriers and improve students' chances of success, more schools are embracing community models. Under this model, school leaders establish strategic relationships with organizations, universities and other community partners to offer wraparound services for students and their families, including mental healthcare resources, nutritional programs, medical clinics, and expanded early childhood and adult education programs.
Since this holistic approach has gained momentum in many districts, grants have also become available to make schools serving as community centers a feasible option.
While many of the factors impeding the success of black students lay outside the classroom, Tyrone Howard, one of the researchers and the director of the UCLA Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families, said there are additional things schools can do to address the problem.
First, Howard said, it is important for schools to openly acknowledge the problem that there are "real challenges that black students face." He says the "big elephant in the room" is racism and points out that schools and communities don't discuss its pervasiveness nearly as much as they should.
Second, schools and districts must be intentional in prioritizing resources to help black students such as social workers, mental health professionals and academic counselors. Recent teacher strikes and contract negotiations in urban areas like Chicago have also included requests for more professionals in these areas.
"Schools can't do it alone, but they do have a responsibility to help us figure it out," Howard said.