It’s become almost a truism to say “schools can’t do it alone” when it comes to improving outcomes for low-income kids. Most people agree it takes the proverbial village to make sure all children, especially kids growing up in poverty, graduate from high school prepared for college and career success.
Yet when the same thing is said in a different way — that there is a large and growing number of kids who, without more support, will predictably fail to graduate even if they’re in good schools with effective teachers in every classroom — the conversation can move from truism to inconvenient truth.
Most of us who work in or with schools and communities are uncomfortable with predicting some kids will fail. It gnaws at us. It gets us mad. And too often, it silences us. Yet this is a truth we have to admit and say out loud, because only then can we start to find the solutions that will make it more likely those kids will succeed.
We can start by focusing on three groups of low-income children who are most likely not to achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade — probably the best predictor we have of whether they’ll graduate from high school on time:
(1) Kids who start school too far behind. We know children born into poverty are two times more likely to experience delays in cognitive, social and emotional development. What’s more, research indicates a low-income child, by his or her third birthday, may hear 30 million fewer words than his better off peers thus limiting his or her exposure to language.
(2) Kids who miss too many days of school. Low-income children are four times more likely to be chronically absent in the early grades, missing 10 percent or more of the school year. The National Center for Children in Poverty has shown that, for low-income kids, there is a correlation between chronic kindergarten absence and fifth grade academic achievement.
(3) Kids who lose too much ground over the summer. Low-income children lose an average of more than two months in reading achievement due to summer learning loss. After the first six years of schools, those losses add up to the equivalent of three grades, research shows.
The good news is that communities are stepping up. Launched four years ago, 167 communities in 41 states have joined the Campaign for Grade Level Reading by developing Community Solution Action Plans to improve school readiness, reduce chronic absence and curb summer learning loss.
These communities know there is no single silver bullet or magic potion to assure more kids are ready for school, attending regularly, and not suffering summer learning loss, much less read proficiently by the end of third grade.
But we’re learning there is a secret sauce that can boost almost any strategy to achieve those results. It has two ingredients: The first is to equip, empower and educate parents as their children’s first teachers and primary brain developers. The second is to focus on the health factors that often determine reading success in later grades. These include on-track cognitive social and emotional development as well as managing/preventing asthma, vision, hearing and nutritional problems.
Bottom line: Disrupting the factors leading to dropping out, while difficult, is not only necessary but achievable — especially if all of us can admit some inconvenient truths and give communities and schools the information, supports, tools, and inspiration to create new pathways to opportunity for the lowest-income children.