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For most schools, the building’s instructional leader is the principal. This is not to discredit or diminish the role of other school-based professionals, but it reflects the increased stakes brought on by No Child Left Behind, its predecessors, and other performance management-style initiatives. As I understand it, there are at least two of the four approaches under NCLB that require removal of the principal. That’s a tough space to be in.

Leading a school that serves children of poverty brings along a unique set of challenges. Here are some of the challenges and how they may be addressed:

  1. Explain that Oscar Lewis does not know your kids. What started out as a traditional anthropological field project in 1956 became a book written in 1961 by Oscar Lewis. The Children of Sanchez was based on poor village migrants in Mexico City. It was such a moving account that a movie was later made based on the book. One of the most lasting products of this book is the term “culture of poverty.” Though the backdrop was small-town rural Mexico, the phrase “culture of poverty” began to be indiscriminately used to refer to poverty in settings that were quite different from the ones Oscar Lewis observed. To date, no research has been put forth that shows that poverty occurs in a manner that can be consistently characterized as a clearly defined “culture.”  It is not some collection homogenous values, beliefs, or behaviors. (Side note:  Oscar Lewis’ brother-in-law was Abraham Maslow. Yes, that Maslow!)
  2. Consistently refute the idea that students that are economically poor are intellectually poor. “But just listen to how these kids talk,” some may say. In Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty, researchers bear out that linguistic variety is normal and not a sign of deficiency. In fact, all language has grammatical structures in place that, when properly analyzed, reveal a level of sophistication on par with traditionally-accepted English vernacular. Instead of admonishing youth to “stop talking like that,” we could better serve them by approaching language skills as a way of building their repertoire, not by trying to decimate what they find normal and natural.
  3. Destroy the notion that poor people do not value education as much as wealthier people. This is FALSE. There are a number of researchers that have addressed this, and one of these, Catherine Compton-Lilly, has written a book about it entitled Confronting Racism, Poverty, and Power: Classroom Strategies to Change the World. This myth is often fueled by the fact that parents of poor students do not show up at the school as much as school personnel may think is appropriate. The reality is that these parents often work longer hours, more jobs, or the types of jobs that do not afford them the flexibility to be more present at school. Another factor to consider is the relationship the school has cultivated with parents. Perhaps the parents do not feel comfortable at the school. Maybe they have a personal relationship with school that has not been positive. It could even be generational, with a number of family members not having the best relationship with a school or school personnel. As an instructional leader, it is important to proactively create a culture whereby staff reach out to families consistently, even if they appear to be unresponsive, irrespective of why we think they are not responding the way we want them to.
  4. Ensure that teachers have transitioned from islands of mastery to communities of collaborations. Why would this be important for students of poverty? Better communication and collaboration allows staff to better leverage what they individually know about students and families in a way that increase efficacy and shared information enables educators to better address student challenges. For instance, students may not have similar access to resources outside of school. When this is common knowledge among all staff, strategies will be more consistent across classrooms. Staff can collectively plan assignments in a way that ensures that they are not predisposing students to failure by assigning homework that cannot be completed.
  5. Fight for kids. Special education classrooms are often disproportionately comprised of students of color, males, and students of poverty. Many times these designations overlap. An effective instructional leader will proactively fight to stifle any efforts to unfairly assign students to special education classrooms or academic tracks that are low in academic rigor. They will also work with teachers to be sure that the curriculum effectively validates the vast amount of non-traditional intelligence and experiences possessed by students of low socioeconomic status. Far too common is a deficit-based perspective that focuses on what’s wrong, which is a very limiting approach, instead of what’s right and available to build upon.

Bomer,Randy, Joel E. Dworin, Laura May Semingson, Peggy Semingson, “Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne's Claims about Poverty,” Teachers College Record, 110 (12), 2008, pp. 2497-2531. ID Number: 14591, Date Accessed: 1/23/2014 10:12:10 AM
Compton-Lilly, C., Confronting Racism Poverty and Power: Classroom Strategies to Change the World. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, (2004).
Lewis, Oscar, The Children of Sanchez, 50th Anniversary Edition, Vintage Books, NY:NY (2011)

Gregory White

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Gregory White is a Ph.D. student in the Education Policy program at Michigan State University. He holds a Bachelor of Education degree from the University of Michigan and a Master of Education degree from Harvard University...

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