Should we fix schools by fixing poverty or fixing teaching? How about trying both? (Part 1)
Turnaround for Children aims to improve low-performing schools by addressing the effects of poverty both inside and outside the classroom. This year the organization is working in 5 DCPS schools and hopes that the school system will incorporate its approach on a broader scale in the future.
Generally speaking, there have been two polarized camps in the education debate: those who say you can't fix education until you fix poverty, and the "no excuses" camp that says a good teacher can educate any child regardless of her income level.
Turnaround for Children (TFC) occupies a middle position. Recognizing that kids don't leave the effects of poverty at the schoolroom door, the program tries to connect persistently disruptive students at a struggling school with the social services they need. At the same time, it trains teachers in a school-wide approach to teaching and classroom management that aims to both foster social and emotional skills and raise academic performance for all students. (Disclosure: I have contributed financially to TFC.)
TFC has partnered with over 80 schools, mostly in New York City, and has been in DC since 2010. This year it's involved with 3 DCPS elementary schools and two K-8 campuses.
All 5 schools have a 99% poverty rate (as measured by eligibility for free and reduced-price meals), and 95% or more of their students are African-American. Their proficiency rates on DC's standardized tests average 29% in math and 24% in reading, meaning that about three quarters of students are performing below grade level.
Founded in 2002 by child psychiatrist Pamela Cantor, TFC began its work in New York. Cantor had been asked to assess the level of trauma among schoolchildren after the events of 9/11, but she came to realize that an even bigger cause of trauma for children in the city was living in poverty.
Research has shown that the stress associated with poverty has effects on the brain that make it harder for kids to focus, to control their impulses, and generally to do the things they need to succeed in school. That's one reason high-poverty schools have more than their share of children with behavior problems. And those kids make it difficult for all students to learn.
The good news is that these effects can be reversed, especially in children. To do that, TFC has devised what it calls a "fortified environment for teaching and learning." The organization partners with a school for 3 to 5 years, bringing in a team consisting of a social work consultant, an instructional coach, and a program director.
The goal is that instead of relying on suspensions or even visits from the police to maintain order, schools will develop a nurturing, positive culture that will drastically decrease the need for serious disciplinary measures.
Walker-Jones Education Campus
That seems to be happening already at Walker-Jones Education Campus in Ward 6, a K-8 school that is in its first year of a TFC partnership. Principal Michael Moss says that when he arrived at the school, it had more suspensions per year than any other DCPS school below the high school level: 452, in a school of about 420 students.
The school has had a troubled history. Moss is the 13th principal there in the past 10 years, and there's a thriving drug culture in the neighborhood. (The Sursum Corda and Tyler House housing projects are nearby.) Moss recounts the story of one 3rd-grader who came to school last year with "3 baggies of crack and was trying to sell them in class."
Moss realizes that many kids at Walker-Jones have a lot going on in their lives. "We've got to be a sanctuary for our students," he says. And although at first he was skeptical of TFC, after hearing Cantor speak, he thought: "She's got it, right on the nose."
TFC works with teachers to develop common procedures they can use to establish order throughout the building. To ask for quiet, for example, teachers hold up a hand and say, "Give me 5 please." Moss even uses the phrase when making announcements over the PA system and to get attention at faculty meetings.
In addition, a team meets regularly to discuss individual students who are experiencing significant difficulties. If the school itself can't address the student's needs, the team connects the student's family with Hillcrest Children and Family Center, a mental health provider. The costs of treatment are generally covered by Medicaid.
And TFC provides an instructional coach who helps teachers learn to head off or defuse disruptive situations. The coach also introduces teachers to "cooperative learning" techniques that are designed to foster social and emotional skills at the same time they teach kids content.
In part two of this post, we'll look at how TFC's approach is working at Walker-Jones and another DCPS school and how the organization plans to broaden its reach in DC in the future.