Editorial: Low-income students need a connection
Any educator will tell you that a graduation rate of 100 percent is the goal. The reality in New Hampshire is that, according to national figures released last week, about 86 percent of the state’s high school students go on to receive their diplomas.
That rate is good enough to place the state eighth in the nation, which is a laudable number if you value state-by-state comparisons. But you shouldn’t, because the number that matters most is 72 – that’s the graduation percentage for the state’s low-income students.
The success gap between higher-income students, who graduate at a rate of 91 percent, and those who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches isn’t new here or anywhere else. And it’s not difficult to see why the gap exists.
Many impoverished students are in survival mode. Their basic needs are not necessarily being met at home, which means education is on the periphery of their daily existence. Consequently, teachers often find themselves serving as nurse, counselor and parent, which leaves less time for the kind of education that shows up in test scores.
What low-income students need more than anything is education and positive relationships – to connect with a teacher, aide or administrator, someone who can help them see that a high school diploma loosens poverty’s grip.
Our best educators do that naturally. They assess each student’s interests, and then look for opportunities for engagement and growth. An interest in auto mechanics can lead to a curiosity about the history of American automakers, the use of computers in modern engines, fiction and nonfiction writing that relies on a deep knowledge of a specific subject area and so on. The key to all that is an educator who helps students make the crucial cross-curricular connections.
For their part, administrators must be willing, as many of them are, to empower teachers to offer more individualized instruction and celebrate alternative pathways to a diploma. Common Core standards establish what a student must learn, but it is completely up to a school to determine how they learn it. Extended learning opportunities and competency-based instruction, both provided to students in New Hampshire districts, brighten the future for many students, especially those from a low socioeconomic background.
There is no easy fix for New Hampshire’s lamentable graduation rate for low-income students, but the next step doesn’t have to be overly complex.
In A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Dr. Ruby Payne writes, “Four reasons one leaves poverty are that it’s too painful to stay, a vision or goal, a key relationship, or a special talent or skill.” For educators, the challenge is to bring clarity to that vision while helping all students identify and build on that special talent or skill.
Education and relationships, Dr. Payne reminds us, can break the chains of poverty.