Monday, August 29, 2011

Community Schools: Supporting Children, Families and Neighborhoods

What is a 'Community School'?

Through a set of partnerships with external agencies and businesses, community schools purposefully integrate health and social services, youth and community development, and community/civic engagement with academics (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). The concept of the community school represents a vehicle for aligning the assets of students, families, teachers, and the community around a common goal - improving the success of young people. Although the specific form each community school takes is heavily dependent on its unique community context, they do share some of the same core principles: 1) fostering strong partnerships 2) sharing accountability for results 3) setting high expectations for all 4) embracing diversity and 5) developing homegrown, sustainable solutions (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). More specifically, each community school provides services tailored to meet the needs of its community and may include family literacy nights, affordable housing information, nutrition counseling, English as a second language and/or GED classes, mental health services and yoga classes (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). Through this model of education, the hope is to ensure that children are healthy physically, socially, and emotionally and, as a result, ready to learn when they enter school; community schools also strive to develop stronger families and healthier communities. Additionally, community schools help to ensure that families and neighborhoods are supportive and engaged and that parents and community members are involved with the school and lifelong learning (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). Community schools also promote the better use of school buildings which results in neighborhoods that enjoy increased security, heightened community pride, and better rapport among students and residents. The supports provided through partnerships result in healthier and happier children and allow teachers to teach children that are more equipped and ready to learn all while residing in strengthened communities (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009). 

Here are some examples of community schools in the United States: 
  • Communities in Schools (CIS) was established 30 years ago to prevent students from dropping out of school. CIS is a national network of 194 local affiliates in 27 states and Washington, D.C. and provides a model with a core set of values called the Five Basics that each site pursues: 1) a one-on-one relationship with a caring adult 2) a safe place to learn and grow 3) a healthy start and a healthy future 4) a marketable skill to use upon graduation and 5) a chance to give back to community and peers. Each site, however, is different in that each site assesses its students' particular needs and then finds the appropriate services. Thus, one site may provide dental exams and drug/alcohol education while another may provide extended-hours education and help for teen parents. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Children's Aid Society (CAS) was founded in 1853 and has long served New York City's disadvantaged children with a wide variety of programs. It began developing community schools in 1992 and now serves as the lead partner in 21 New York City community schools. The CAS model provides expanded educational, health, social and recreational services through enrichment programs  offered before and after school, medical, dental, mental health and social services, parent involvement and adult education classes, and events designed for the whole community. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) Community Schools consist of 54 schools in 6 districts in Multnomah County, Oregon. SUN community schools have created a regional approach to providing educational, recreational, social and health services as they are collaboration of the Multnomah County Department of Human Services, Portland Park and Recreation, various nonprofits, and local school districts. SUN community school hope to unite the neighborhood by extending the school day and serving as a community "hub;" extended-day academic and enrichment programs are linked with the school day and include family involvement and strengthening programs, health and social services for students, and adult education classes. Direct services are supported by partnerships with other community institutions such as libraries, parks and community centers, area churches, and neighborhood health clinics. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative also uses a regional approach serving elementary schools in 2 districts. The initiative has a strong health component through the Oklahoma University at Tulsa Health Sciences Center. Working groups focus on early childhood, health and health education, mental health and social services, youth development, out-of-school time, and lifelong learning. The Tulsa Area Community Schools is coordinated and supported by the Community Service Council of Greater Tulsa, a nonprofit, citizen-led United Way agency. See: (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).

What Does the Research Say About Community Schools?

Academic Performance
When community schools initiatives are well executed, students show significant gains in academic achievement (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • CIS, the largest nationwide model of community schools, reported that schools that fully implement the CIS model have higher percentages of students achieving math and reading proficiency than did students in other schools.
  • CAS (NYC) schools do particularly well with the lowest 1/3 of students, making at least one year of academic progress in both elementary and middle schools. All CAS middles schools but one outperformed peer and city-wide schools in making one year of progress and CAS middle schools academically outperformed peer schools in math progress for the lowest 1/3 of students.
  • In 2007-08, nine Cincinnati pilot community schools showed 10% increases in proficient or better on standardized tests and met Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). 
  • San Mateo County (CA) Community Schools' most seasoned schools have students who regularly reach the state's Academic Performance Index standards (which are more rigorous than AYP) and achieved advanced scores on the state's English Language Arts assessment. 
  • The 150 schools in the Chicago Community Schools Initiative (CSI) delivered standardized test results from 2001 to 2006 that show a steady closing of the achievement gap with other Chicago public schools. CSI schools improved close to 8 percentage points more than non-CSI schools in both math and reading standardized achievement tests (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Attendance & Graduation Rates
Community schools tend to have a significant effect on increasing attendance and decreasing dropout rates (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • CIS is the only research-based dropout prevention program in the country proven to increase graduation rates, graduating students on time with a regular diploma compared to organizations listed by the U.S. Department of Education What Works Clearinghouse. 
  • A 2009 study found that CAS schools with on site health clinics tend to have higher attendance rates than other New York City schools without them. 
  • In Providence, RI, there were 55% fewer incidences of chronic absenteeism among participants in Providence Full Service Community Schools' programs than in the general population; children with parents in Family Literacy had a 97.3% attendance rate. 
  • Across the four schools on the Little Village campus in Chicago, there was a less than 1% truancy rate.
  • In Tukwila, WA, Community Schools Collaboration's on-time graduation rate has increased annually since 2001; the rate of absentee and dropouts for middle and high school students also decreased. 
  • From 2000 to 2008, the Cincinnati school district's high schools have seen the graduation rate improve from 51% to 82% (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Improved Behavior
Community schools report beneficial shifts in the attitudes, interests, motivations, and relationships of children and youth who attend a community school (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • In Chicago, CSI students have consistently demonstrated significantly lower numbers of serious disciplinary incidents compared to schools with similar demographics.
  • Shaw Middle School (PA), which partners with the University of Pennsylvania, saw suspensions decrease from 464 to 163 over the course of 6 years.
  • CAS schools found significant increases in self-esteem, career, and other aspirations for surveyed students and decreased reports of problems with communication.
  • Students in Beacons, a New York City-based community school model, reported that they were less likely to intentionally hurt someone physically, damage other people’s property, steal money or get into a fight (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
Parent Involvement
Consistent parental involvement at home and school, at every grade level and throughout the year is important for students’ sustained success. Studies have found that parents of community school students are more engaged on their children’s learning and are more involved in their school (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).
  • Carlin Springs Elementary School (VA) serves a high population of children from non-English speaking families; because of this the school offers adult ESL classes. Ninety-five percent of parents taking ESL classes also attended parent-teacher conferences and reported that they were more likely to be engaged in their children's education. 
  • Results from a community school study in San Mateo County show that 93% of parents attended parent-teacher conferences and a high percentage of parents encouraged their children to complete homework and talked to their children about school. Parent skills and capacities also improved as a result of the schools' offered programs. 
  • In Providence’s Full Service Community School, which serves 350 students, a total of 333 different adult family members participated in school-based family engagement events during the school year; 116 parents participated in 3 or more school based events. Eighty-nine percent of parents demonstrated significant improvement in their ability to communicate and relate to their child’s school environment; 46% of parents in Family Literacy classes increased an Educational Functional Level which is the equivalent of 2 grade levels in reading (Blank, Jacobson, & Pearson, 2009).

A Local Example: Robert L. Ford School

Built in the 1900s, the Robert L. Ford School is located in the Highlands in Lynn, Massachusetts. It consists of grades K through 5, though Ford was Pre-K through 8 until 2009.  In terms of demographics, the student body is currently 12.6% Black/African American, 11.3% Asian, 60.9% Hispanic, and 11.3% White. Eighty-eight percent of the students are considered low income and there is a significant number of homeless students. Additionally, of the 547 students at Ford, 63.3% speak English as a Second Language while 38.8% have limited English Proficiency. 

According to the Ford School website, "With the help of various community partners, networking and a "never say no" attitude, the Ford School is able to support students and their families." Through its many partnerships the Ford School is able to offer services such as teacher aide training classes and free computer classes for parents through the Salem State University, information regarding affordable housing through the Lynn Housing Authority, both after- and in-school tutoring through Salem State, General Electric and Gordon College, and free eyeglasses through Lens Crafters. The school's principal, Dr. Claire Crane, encourages Saturday school for chronic underachievers. One of the Ford School's most fruitful programs has been its over 20 year partnership with the Cohen Hillel Academy, a private Jewish school in Marblehead, MA. Hillel students have served as both reading buddies and math tutors to the Ford School students. Of the 44 students that were tutored in math by Hillel students during the 10 week spring program, 43 successfully passed the MCAS test (see here). Hillel has also organized clothing drives, book donations, field days on their campus and outings to cultural events, programs which are beneficial for both the Ford and Hillel students. The Ford School has also sponsored Family Literacy Nights, GED classes, ESL classes and citizenship classes and serves as the home to the Highlands Coalition, a community-based organization (see Ford has also enjoyed a unique partnership with NASA and the Food Project which sponsors a community garden; these programs have helped students to learn about science, technology, math, gardening, and nutrition.

In terms of specific outcomes, the average number of school absences at the Ford school is 7.6 days compared to 10.8 for the district as a whole; the overall attendance is 95.6% compared to 93.6% for the district. The number of disciplinary actions is also much lower than average as indicated by the 3.7% suspension rate compared to 18.1% suspension rate for the district as a whole. Ford also has one of the lowest special education referral rates in the city. As a result of its efforts to involve parents including morning coffee times and free night school classes that offer childcare, attendance at parent-teacher conferences has increased from 10-20% to 90-95% over the past 20 years (see here). As far as standardized tests, 40% of students received either proficient or advanced on the English MCAS while 36% score proficient or above on the math MCAS. While these numbers could be improved, it should be noted that only 11% of students failed the English MCAS and 16% failed the math MCAS despite the fact that Ford has been challenged with educating such a large English language learner and low income population. The Ford School continues to offer a wide variety of programming for both students and families endearing it to all who have benefited from its offerings.


All  Test Score and Demographic Data from:

Blank, M., Jacobson, R., & Pearson, S.S. (2009). A coordinated effort: well-conducted partnerships meet students’ academic, health and social service needs. American Educator, 30- 36.

Coalition for Community Schools. (2009). Community schools: research brief.

Coalition for Community Schools. (2010). Community schools- results that turn around failing schools: test scores, attendance, graduation and college-going rates.

Friday, August 26, 2011

High Incomes, Low Absenteeism

Here we looked at the average number of school absences in cities that contain Massachusetts' hungriest children. It is also important to note this average for students in high income communities. Below is the average number of school absences in some of the wealthiest communities in Massachusetts.


In the low income communities selected for the previous study, the average ranged from 6.4 school absences to 15.7. Here we see that children in high income communities tend to miss a lot less school; the averages range from 5.5 school days to 8.3. This difference indicates the added challenge that low income communities have in educating their children compared to high income communities. While is it important to know this, the next step should be to determine why students are not coming to school and what the school, parents and community can do to change high absentee rates. Fixing the curriculum and raising standards are important, but matters little if children not coming to school; one cannot teach a child that is not present.

All Data Taken from:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

This Day in History: August 23

 -Calvinists are granted rights in the Netherlands, 1555

-King George III declares the American colonies exist in a state of open and avowed rebellion, 1775

-The automobile tire chain is patented, 1904

-The Battle of Stalingrad (World War II) begins, 1942

-Queen Noor of Jordan is born, 1951

-Armenia declares its independence from the Soviet Union, 1990

-Holiday: European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism (European Union)

English Language Learners: What the Research Tells Us

In the last 15 years, the number of students in U.S. schools who do not speak English has increased substantially from about 2 million to 5 million (Goldenberg, 2008). In 1990, 1 in 20 students in grades K-12 was an English language learner (ELL); currently 1 in 9 students are considered ELL with the number expected to be 1 in 4 in the next 20 years. ELL specifically refers to a student who either does not speak English at all or with enough limitations that he or she cannot fully participate in mainstream English instruction (Goldenberg, 2008). In terms of demographics, ELL students in the U.S. come from over 400 different language backgrounds; eighty-percent of these students are Spanish speakers while Asian language speakers (Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, etc.) comprise about eight percent of the ELL population (Goldenberg, 2008).

As was discussed in the above posted article, Lynn, MA has seen a substantial increase in the number of immigrants moving to the city. While this adds to the cultural diversity of Lynn, it does pose a problem in terms of education. The psychological, emotional and physical effects of poverty alone make it difficult enough to successfully educate children (see here); another layer of complexity is added when one considers the issues of how to educate a large population of students with limited English language proficiency who speak many different primary languages. On average, ELL students’ academic achievement tends to be low (Goldenberg, 2008). On the 2007 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), 4th grade ELL students scored 36 points below non-ELL students in reading and 25 points below non-ELL students in math; this gap was even larger on the 8th grade assessment as the gap between ELL and non-ELL students was 42 points in reading and 37 points in math (Goldenberg, 2008). In Lynn, nearly 53% of students speak English as a second language (ESL) while nearly 22% of Lynn students have limited English proficiency (LEP). The figures do vary by individual school such that some schools have higher numbers of ESL and LEP students than others. The Ford Elementary School, for example, is 63.3% ESL and 38.8% LEP while Lynn Woods Elementary is 14% ESL and 5.1% LEP. Still, educating ELLs is an important issue for the Lynn Public school system as half of the schools are 50% or more ESL with this number as high as 77% (Connery); the number of schools with 20% or more LEP students is 10 with the percentage as high as 47.3% (Cobbett). Moreover, LEP students were among the subgroups in Lynn that failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as defined by the No Child Left Behind legislation at all grade levels in 2010.

In Massachusetts, the law regarding ELL and LEP students refers to the following programs:

  • Sheltered English Immersion (SEI): MA law requires that all ELL students be educated in SEI programs. IN SEI classrooms, nearly all instructional materials and books are in English. This program is made up of two parts- 'sheltered content instruction' which uses specially adapted English to make academic instruction more understandable and 'language instruction' which helps ELL students develop speaking, writing, reading, and listening skills in English (PIRC). 
  • Two-Way Bilingual Education: Students who are learning English and native English speakers learn together in both languages. Instruction and books are in the student’s first and second languages (PIRC).
  • Transition Bilingual Education (TBE): Content instruction is given in the child's native language while he or she is learning English. Additionally, instruction in ESL is provided. As a student's proficiency increases, they transition from receiving instruction in their native language to receiving it in English (PIRC.
  • "Opt out" provision: Parents who wish for their child not to be in a program for English learners may "opt out" and their child will be placed in general education classes taught in English. Schools still must monitor the child's progress and provide academic assistance and assistance in ESL (PIRC).

But what does the research specifically say about ELL/LEP education?

Teaching Students to Read in their First Language Promotes Higher Levels of Reading Achievement in English

A meta-analysis of 17 studies concluded that teaching ELL students to read in their first language and then in their second language or teaching both simultaneously (at different times during the day) boosts their reading achievement in the second language. This was found to be true particularly when comparing students taught to read in both languages to students only taught to read in the second language (Goldenberg, 2008). Studies regarding this topic included students at levels (elementary, middle, and secondary school) as well as ELL students who were also designated as special education students (Goldenberg, 2008). Educational psychologists and cognitive scientists believe this finding is based on a concept called ‘transfer.’ Research suggests that literacy and other skills and knowledge transfer across languages; if a student learns something in one language, such as comprehension strategies, you either already know it in or transfer it to another language or can more easily learn it in another language (Goldenberg, 2008). Still, teachers cannot assume that transfer is automatic; ELL students are helped by instruction that points out what does and does not transfer from their home language to English (GoldenbergGoldenberg, 2008.) Unfortunately, instruction in the primary language is not always possible because often there is no qualified staff and/or because the students come from too many different language backgrounds. This is the case in Lynn which is beginning to see students who speak languages that few other people in the area speak or for which there is no written form. 

While research suggests that primary language reading instruction promotes reading achievement in English, there is still much that remains unanswered.  Questions that continue to be investigated and for which there is currently no clear guidelines include:
  • Is primary language instruction more beneficial for some learners than for others? Ex. weaker or stronger primary language skills? Weaker or stronger English skills?
  • Is primary language instruction more effective in some settings and with certain ELL populations than others?
  • What level of skill in the primary language does the teacher need to have in order to be effective?
  • In an English immersion program, what is the most effective way to use primary language to support student learning?
  • How long should ELL students receive instruction in their primary language?
  • Should English language development be taught as a separate subject at a distinct time or should it be integrated throughout the day?

Good Instruction and Curriculum in General is Important for ELL Students

Two separate national reports concluded that good instruction for students in general tends to be good instruction for ELL students in particular. All students benefit from clear learning goals and learning objectives, meaningful, challenging, and motivating contexts, periodic review and practice, feedback on correct and incorrect responses,  a curriculum rich with content, appropriately paced instruction and active engagement and participation among other things (Goldenberg, 2008). As is true with native English speakers, there are individual or group differences; some students might benefit from more or less structure, practice, review, or autonomy (Goldenberg, 2008). Other types of instruction that works with ELLs include cooperative learning (students working together on group tasks and learning goals), discussions to promote comprehension, and encouraging reading in English (Goldenberg, 2008). The CREDE report stated “The best recommendation to emerge from our review favors instruction that combines interactive and direct approaches" (Goldenberg, 2008). Interactive approaches refer to instruction with a give and take between teacher and student, where the teacher promotes higher levels of speaking, thinking and reading; examples include structured discussions, brainstorming and editing/discussing student or teacher writing (Goldenberg, 2008). Direct approaches emphasize the explicit and direct teaching of skills or knowledge; examples include letter-sound association, spelling patterns, or vocabulary words. There is mixed evidence regarding approaches where students are exposed to literacy materials but receive little direct teaching or structured learning (Goldenberg, 2008). An example would extended "free writing" opportunities as opposed to structured writing lessons. The CREDE report concluded that “Focused and explicit instruction in particular skills and sub-skills is called for if ELLs are to become efficient and effective readers an writers” (Goldenberg, 2008). 

Modify Instruction to Take Student’s Language Limitations into Account

In the early stages of learning to read (when the focus is on sounds, letters and word formation), English learners can make progress in English that is comparable to that of English speakers provided the instruction is clear and focused (Goldenberg, 2008). Furthermore, when language requirements are low, ELLs are more likely to make adequate progress although they still probably require some support due to language limitations (Goldenberg, 2008). ELL students’ language limitations begin to impede academic progress as vocabulary and content become more relevant for continued reading which usually occurs around the 3rd grade. Furthermore, as the students get older and academic content becomes more challenging as language demands increase, the need for instructional modifications to make the content more comprehensible will increase as well (Goldenberg, 2008). Thus, vocabulary development is particularly critical for ELLs. Also, in the beginning, teachers will have to speak slowly with clear vocabulary and diction and use pictures as well as other objects to illustrate the content being taught. As they gain proficiency, students should require fewer modifications (Goldenberg, 2008). Still, while conversational English can be learned in two to three years, proficiency in academic English can require six or seven years and in some case, much longer (Goldenberg, 2008). 

*All MCAs-related Data taken from:


  Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learner: what the research does- and does not- say. American Educator, 8-44.

   Massachusetts Parent Information and Resource Center. Rights of English language learner.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Hungry Students, High Absenteeism

Among other issues (see here), students with an inadequate food supply tend to miss more days of school than students who have enough food at home (Danzig & Bernier, 2008). Below is the average number of school absences for cities in Massachusetts that have been determined to have the state's hungriest children.

Fall River
West Springfield
New Bedford

All data taken from:

Danzig, B. and Bernier, J. (2008). Child poverty in Massachusetts: a tale of 2 states. Massachusetts Citizens for Children, 1-63.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Poverty Matters: The Effects of Being Poor On Children

A recent national study revealed that 1 in 5 U.S. children lives in poverty which has largely been attributable to the recession and represents an increase of nearly 2.5 million children since 2000. Given the number and the scope of the negative effects associated with poverty, increasing poverty rates among U.S. children have the potential to inflict severe psychological, emotional and economic damage on the next generation of young people. This issue is particularly pertinent for me living in Lynn, MA, a city where nearly a quarter of children (under age 18) live below the poverty line; other cities in Massachusetts have as high as 42% of children living below the poverty line (Danzing & Bernier, 2008). In Chelsea, MA, 97.4% of children under age 18 live in a neighborhood 20% of more of population is living below the poverty line (Danzig & Bernier, 2008). Furthermore, the Massachusetts Citizens for Children found that on any given day 50,000 school aged children and youth as well as 50,000 younger children are homeless in Massachusetts (Danzig & Bernier, 2008); at the Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas alone 85% of the 610 students are homeless (see here). Knowing the numbers is important, but what about the specific consequences of both short-term and persistent poverty? What are some of the far-reaching effects of childhood poverty?

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Greg Duncan published a study in 1997 detailing the toll that poverty can take on children. Specifically, Brooks-Gunn and Duncan (1997) found that poor children suffer higher incidences of adverse health, developmental, and other outcomes than non-poor children. In terms of physical health, poor children are 1.7 times more likely to be born with a low birth rate than non-poor children.  This is likely because poor pregnant women have less access to adequate nutrition and prenatal care; in Lynn, nearly 29% of pregnant women receive NO prenatal care within the first trimester (Torname, 2011). Low birth weight has been associated with an increased likelihood of cognitive and emotional problems that can persist through childhood and adolescence (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Learning disabilities, physical disabilities, and grade repetition as well as lower levels of math and reading achievement are also more prevalent among children who were low birth weight as infants (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). This information is particularly disheartening given that in my hometown (Lynn, MA) 8.7% of children are born with a low birth rate (Torname, 2011). Additionally, poor children are only 66% as likely to be in excellent health and almost twice as likely to be in poor or fair health compared to non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Poor children are also twice as likely to experience growth stunting (low height for age), spend almost 1.5 times as many days in bed, and have twice as many short-stay hospitalizations than non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). 

In terms of cognitive abilities, children living below the poverty line are more likely to experience learning disabilities and developmental delays (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). One study found that poorer children scored between 6 and 13 points lower on various standardized tests of IQ, verbal ability, and achievement (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). This difference between poor and non-poor children was still present even when controlling for maternal age, marital status, education and ethnicity. The 6- to 13-point difference on these types of measures, for some, could mean the difference between being placed in a special education class or not (Brooks-Gunn & Duncan, 1997). Findings suggest that the effects of poverty on children's cognitive development occur early, but also that the effects of long-term poverty were significantly greater than the effects of short-term poverty (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).  What is the reason for this? Poverty has been found to affect children's brain development as children growing up in poor families tend to experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones. Excessive levels of stress hormones disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between cells in the developing brain and affect its blood supply. The result is impaired language development and memory (Danzig & Bernier, 2008). 

Fortunately, a comprehensive review of the literature did find that the effect of poverty on the number of school years completed was small (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). The observed relationship between income and educational attainment seems to be related more so to confounding factors such as parental education, family structure, and neighborhood characteristics as opposed to just family income (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Research does suggest, however, that family income averaged from birth to age 5 had a much more powerful effect on the number of school years a child completes than family income measured between ages 5 and 10 or between ages 11 and 15 (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Specifically, for low income children a $10,000 increase in mean family income between birth and age 5 was associated with almost a full year increase in completed schooling (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). This same increase to family income later in childhood had no significant impact suggesting that income may only be a significant  primary factor in future education attainment during the earliest childhood years (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). In terms of other academic related outcomes, poor children were twice as likely to repeat a grade, be suspended or expelled and dropout of high school (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

Poor children also suffer from emotional and behavioral problems more frequently than non-poor children exhibiting both more externalizing (aggression, fighting, and acting out) and internalizing behaviors (anxiety, social withdrawal, depression) than children who had never been poor (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). This may be due to the fact that poor children are almost 7 times more likely to experience child abuse or neglect and violent crime than non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Short-term poverty (being poor in at least 1 out of 4 years) was also associated with behavioral problems though the effects were smaller than what was found for those experiencing more persistent poverty (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Still, parents in poor families were 1.3 times more likely to have a child who had an emotional or behavioral problem that lasted 3 or more months (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). Interestingly, persistent poverty was associated with more internalizing behaviors while current, but not persistent, poverty was associated with externalizing behaviors such as hyperactivity and peer conflict (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

So how and why does poverty have such a negative effect on children?

Health & Nutrition
- The cumulative health disadvantage experienced by poor children on health measures may account for as much as 13% to 20% of the difference in IQ between poor and non-poor children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Malnutrition is associated with lower scores in tests of cognitive development (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

-Growth stunting, which poor children are at an increased for, affects short-term memory. The effects of stunting on short-term memory is equivalent to the difference in short term memory between families that experienced poverty for 13 years and children in families with incomes at least 3 times the poverty level (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Parental Interactions with Children
-Among adolescents, family economic pressure may lead to conflict with parents resulting in lower school grades, reduced emotional health, and impaired social relationships (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Other sources of conflict include economic uncertainty, unemployment or underemployment and unstable work conditions that ultimately impact the children (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Parental Mental Health
-Parents who are poor are likely to be less healthy both emotionally and physically than those who are not poor (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Parental irritability and depressive symptoms are associated with conflictual interactions with adolescents, leading to less satisfactory emotional, social and cognitive development (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Poor parental mental health is associated with impaired parent-child interactions and less provision of learning experiences in the home (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

Neighborhood Conditions
-Low income may lead to residence in extremely poor neighborhoods characterized by social disorganization such as crime and few resources for child development such as playgrounds, day care and after school programs (Brooks-Gunn, 1997). 

-Poor children are twice as likely to report being scared to leave the house (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

-Other pathways through which poverty operates include a lack of access to and use of prenatal care, access to pediatric care, exposure to environmental toxins, household stability, quality of school attended and peer groups (Brooks-Gunn, 1997).

While poverty has the ability to negatively affect multiple aspects of both children and adults' lives, there are protective factors against a guaranteed life of misfortune. These include strong family support, religion, and positive peer relationships. Additionally, introducing learning experiences in the home has been found to aid in cognitive development and counteract poverty's influence on achievement outcomes. Unfortunately, not all children have parents or families that are willing or able to provide the necessary academic or emotional support to prevent negative outcomes. While some in the recent education reform debate may say that citing poverty is 'an excuse,' as the research here and elsewhere suggests, the effects of poverty on one's  overall emotional and physical well being and  future educational outcomes as well as on life’s trajectory in general are very real. 

Brooks-Gunn, J. and Duncan, G.J. (1997). The effects of poverty on children. Children and Poverty, 55-71.
Danzig, B. and Bernier, J. (2008). Child poverty in Massachusetts: a tale of 2 states. Massachusetts Citizens for Children, 1-63.
Torname, J. (2011). Lynn: a little city with big potential. New Lynn Coalition Publication, 2-32.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

13 Years of School and No Diploma?: Non-Grad Completers

In addition to local graduation requirements, students in Massachusetts are required to pass the MCAS test in order to graduate from high school. Although they are given 5 opportunities to pass the exam, some  students still do not reach the proficient mark leaving many frustrated and/or discouraged. There is a population that does leave school rather than take the MCAS a 3rd, 4th or 5th time with the possibility of failing again;  some obtain GEDs while others dropout of school entirely with less than a high school education. In addition to high school graduates, dropouts and those who seek a GED, there is a fourth group of students. "Non-grad completers" are students have successfully completed school according to local requirements, but their MCAS test scores (scores lower than 220) prevent them from receiving an official diploma. Instead these students sometimes receive what is called a 'certificate of attainment' which indicates that they have met all graduation requirements aside from standardized testing. Specifically, non-grad completers are students who either:

a) earned a certificate of attainment
b) completed local graduation requirements but whose district does not offer a certificate of attainment
c) students with special needs that reached the maximum age (22) but did not graduate.

So, who is more likely to be a non-grad-completer?

Students in low income communities seem to have more difficulty passing the MCAS than students in higher income communities due to a number of factors including a higher number of school absences (see here).  Perhaps, partly as a result of this, low income communities see higher numbers of students who either dropout or seek a GED, but also have a higher number of non-grad completers.  Below are the non-grad completer, GED and dropout rates for Lynn, Lawrence, Holyoke, Lowell, Chelsea and Brockton for the 2009-2010 school year. The percentage of low income students in these communities ranges from 72.25% to 87.1%; the percentage of children (under age 18) living below the poverty line ranges from 19.4% to 41.7%.

Non-grad Completer

In terms of actual numbers this translates into:

Non-grad Completer

From this, we see that while there is a percentage of students that are non-grad completers, this number is not substantial across the board. Brockton, for example, has a tiny percentage of its students receive certificates of attainment while Lawrence and Holyoke see a slightly larger number of students leave school as non-grad completers. The percentage of students who dropout of school completely seems to be a more significant statistic than the percentage of students who receive certificates or GEDs. The dropout rate in these communities is as high as 28%. This may indicate that some students may opt to leave school rather take the MCAS multiple times or complete the 12th grade without a diploma. The Massachusetts Department of Education does also have a board of Appeals for students who meet certain requirements such as taking the test 3 times and attending school 95% of the time, but many students likely become demoralized by the education and do not pursue this option. As a result, there is a considerable population of students in each of these cities that complete their secondary education with a certificate of attainment instead of a diploma.

In order to assert that students in low-income communities are more likely to be non-grad completers,  one would have to know what the numbers are for high income communities. Below are the non-grad completer, GED and dropout rates for selected high income communities in Massachusetts also for the 2009-2010 school year. The percentage of low income students in these communities ranges from 3.4% to 5.9%; the percentage of children (under age 18) living under the poverty line ranges from 1.8% to 4%.

Non-grad Completer 

Here we see an almost non-existent population of students who leave high school with just a certificate of attainment. This is consistent with overall graduation trends in these communities as a small number of students either obtain a GED or dropout of school all together.

From this we can reasonably say that you are more likely to be a non-grad completer if you attend a school in low income city or town. Are there other risk factors such as limited English proficiency or race? Looking at the data for selected populations reveals no general answer to this question; it largely depends on the city in which the student resides. For example, a larger percentage of African American students in Lowell (7.5%) and Lawrence (8.7%) leave high school as non-grad completers while the percentage of African American non-grad completers in Holyoke and Chelsea is zero. On the other hand, special education students in Holyoke

While it is interesting to note how many students graduate with certificates of attainment and what the demographics of this population are, it would more useful to know what are the psychological effects of 'graduating' without a diploma. One can only imagine how difficult or frustrating it would be to complete 13 years of schools, but walk away with only a certificate because of a test score.  More importantly, how does this non-grad completer status affect the overall trajectory of the student's life? He or she technically does not have a high school degree, so where does that leave him or her in terms of applying for jobs or college? Students who do not pass the MCAS do have the opportunity to complete educational proficiency plans (EPP) in order to graduate, but all of this is based on a test which studies show to be an unreliable measure of one's knowledge and abilities. Indeed, testing can be important to gauging how much information a student has retained and what areas or topics need more focus, but more thought needs to be put into the punishment aspect of standardized testing. While students who have proven themselves to be poor students probably should not receive a diploma, it seems unfair that a student who complied with every other requirement including those related to attendance still could not receive the diploma he or she has worked 13 years to receive.

*All data taken from: