Are students who need the most receiving the least? Unfortunately, this appears to be today’s stark reality, with underserved schools facing more significant shortfalls in both staffing and funding compared with more affluent peer districts. A recent report found that states’ highest-poverty districts spend 17% below estimated adequate levels. In addition, Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latinx students are twice as likely as white students to attend underfunded schools, with the report noting that spending for these groups at 21% and 13% below adequate, respectively — a stark contrast to districts with a predominantly white student population, which spend 21% above adequate levels.
The staffing gap is problematic as well; a report from the Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) found nearly 60% of schools in areas with greater poverty were understaffed. In comparison, just over half of the schools were understaffed in districts where people make more than twice the federal poverty threshold. Another study found that Title I schools, those deemed high-poverty schools based on the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, have turnover rates nearly 50 percent greater than others.
This lack of equitable access to resources is an obstacle Sandra Juarez, former math teacher at Uvalde High School, in Texas, knows all too well. Today, she’s an assessment consultant at Pearson who works with schools on solutions to help bridge these gaps and avoid concerns that can plague districts where students live in a cycle of poverty such as educator burnout, lack of resources and mental health concerns — all of which she saw firsthand.
The view from an underserved district
Juarez identifies three challenges that are especially significant in underserved districts.
1. Teacher burnout
While educators have always struggled with having too much to do and too little time to accomplish it, the issue might be even more acute now, given tremendous staffing shortages. “It’s putting even more pressure and stress on educators on a daily basis,” Juarez says.
“Teachers are dealing with safety concerns, overcrowded classrooms, behavior issues and achievement gaps, yet they're still responsible for creating meaningful learning experiences for all students including devoting extra time to provide one-on-one support. Educators in underserved areas must do all of that while working with fewer resources.”
Giving educators ample time and tools to do their job is crucial to help avoid the burnout that further exacerbates the cycle of turnover. Staff changes can also have a secondary effect on processes and curriculums.
Juarez experienced this in her time as a math teacher. “It takes time to fully grasp how to work with a new curriculum and possibly years to fully implement it across multiple grade levels, and then you need to stick with it to see the return on investment,” she says. “When educators leave, it can hinder the progress.” For instance, enthusiasm can wane when the proponent of a certain program leaves, leading to wasted investment.
2. Less opportunity to attend to individual students
Another consequence of under-resourced schools is the potential for students to be left behind and not develop their strengths. For example, Juarez states that students from low socio-economic backgrounds are often underrepresented in advanced courses and gifted programs despite their high ability. Too often, students who could benefit from these programs are overlooked. “If more kids are identified and enrolled in these programs, they might have more motivation and a different outlook on school,” she says.
Other issues like spotty attendance or apathy in the classroom might not get addressed if a student is not actively indicating they need help, which means a student who is doing “well enough” might stay under the radar. “Overburdened staff might be unable to offer the extra attention that could help these kids really excel because they see other, more urgent issues. Yet, we all miss out when we don’t nurture each child’s full potential,” Juarez says.
The risk of not adequately addressing students’ needs can be great, she points out. “Failure at school can lead to isolation, low confidence and mental health issues. Ultimately, that can lead to some of our worst fears as the cycle of poverty can continue into adulthood and future generations,” she says.
That said, providing needed support to students and tackling achievement gaps is challenging when educators are stretched so thin.
3. Lower student engagement
It can be even harder to reach students when they face pressing concerns that often disproportionately affect students in low-income districts, such as difficult family issues, chronic absenteeism and peer pressures.
Juarez explains that high school students particularly affected by their family’s financial situation are often those who hold down a part-time job to help put food on the table or are responsible for helping care for younger siblings. “These undertakings are admirable and provide them with real-life skills, yet they take time that might otherwise be devoted to participating in a school activity or completing schoolwork.”
Students living in poverty are also less likely to be exposed to various life experiences, whether it’s traveling to a different location or trying a new hobby. In addition, they might not realize all the possibilities there are for various career avenues. “When your role models and experiences are limited, it is harder to visualize how far you can go, affecting the intrinsic motivation needed to succeed at school and to set appropriate academic paths,” Juarez says.
Meeting the needs of underserved communities
While these challenges seem daunting, educators and districts can address them in several ways, Juarez says. She recommends four strategies.
1. Use professional development and training as a catalyst to stem turnover.
Given the dire consequences of teacher turnover, one solution is to make your school a place where teachers want to stay, which will build consistency and lead to stronger results for students. Providing adequate training on new programs or processes up front can save educators precious time during the school year and help lessen the burden of a heavy workload at critical points.
She also recommends using professional development as a way to create leadership paths for teachers and further cement their longevity. “Seek feedback on their needs, highlight their accomplishments and express gratitude for what they do day in and day out,” Juarez suggests.
2. Connect with students beyond attendance and behavior issues.
Sometimes educators can feel like their role revolves around discipline, which can replace the joy and inspiration they used to feel. Forming bonds with students can help remind them of why they pursued a teaching path, while also creating better outcomes for students. “Make it a priority to discover and cultivate their interests and guide them to participate in related school or community activities,” she suggests. “It’s a red flag when a student becomes isolated and doesn't participate or belong to a group.”
She also cautions against being too rigid when working with kids in underserved communities, who often experience outside pressures that you don’t even realize. “Sometimes you have to be extra compassionate and flexible and give these students a second or third opportunity to be successful.” Achievements should then be acknowledged and celebrated. Above all, remember students need someone to watch out for them and support them in their successes and challenges.
3. Encourage family involvement.
There are many ways to encourage family involvement in school, but it is important to note that in high-poverty schools, many students may have parents or guardians who didn’t graduate from high school themselves. As such, they may not feel comfortable in a formal school setting or participating in school activities. Educators can create partnerships that benefit families by doing things like reaching out about positive news, making calls during off-work hours, holding meetings offsite and asking for the family’s help.
When Juarez worked with at-risk students, her school aimed to hold monthly family meetings, and she found attendance increased when the setting was casual. In addition, it helped if parents were invited to participate by either bringing in a snack or side dish or assisting with set up or some other task to help them feel like they belonged.”
And of course, she reminds educators to over-communicate using as many channels as they can and in different languages, if necessary. Formal training for educators around best methods for collaborating with parents or guardians can also be part of the overall solution.
4. Dedicate resources to a solid screening strategy and early interventions.
The key to helping students receive the support they need to be successful lies in screening, early diagnosis and intervention. Prioritizing this element can help prevent secondary issues like negative behavior or apathy that can wind up being even more taxing on resources.
Among the screeners she recommends are:
- NNAT®3, a non-verbal, culturally neutral assessment of general ability, which she says is ideal for use with a diverse student population
- Resources that can help screen for dyslexia and ADHD to identify students who need extra support on their path to academic success
- Mental health screeners, such as the BASC-3 BESS, which can help identify students who would benefit from more intensive interventions
The problem of under-resourced schools is multi-faceted and will take many different approaches to solve it. Recognizing the challenges these schools face and taking tangible steps to support educators and their students can start making a difference in underserved communities right now.
For more tools, resources and other information to help you help your students perform at their best in the classroom and beyond, visit Pearson’s Mental Health And Anxiety Resource Center.