Addressing the needs of students living in deep poverty

With more than 5 million children living in deep poverty across America, the Learning Policy Institute’s recent report “Building School Communities for Students Living in Deep Poverty” highlights three strategies to help schools address these students’ learning and social-emotional needs.

The federal government establishes poverty thresholds for both families and individuals each year with those falling under the threshold considered to be living in poverty. An annual family income of 50 percent or more below the federal threshold is considered living in deep poverty.

“Deep poverty is the result of economic and social policies that inhibit the life chances and opportunities of children experiencing material hardship,” the report states. “Children living in deep poverty can be found in every state, and many children living in deeply poor households live in communities of concentrated poverty, where 30 percent or more of individuals and families live below the poverty line.”

For a family of four, the poverty threshold is currently $27,750, according to the report.

Some hardships that families experiencing deep poverty often face include food insecurity, unemployment, unstable housing, utility shutoffs, inadequate medical care and isolation.

“These hardships typically impact Black and Indigenous families more profoundly than white families, due to a long history of discrimination that has deprived Black citizens and Native Americans of property, education, and services,” the report states.

LPI’s report piggybacks on the work of previous research on how schools can be “poverty responsive.”

“Key to creating deep poverty-responsive schools is acknowledging the root causes of deep poverty, which are historical and structural. Rather than a focus on ‘fixing’ students, it is important to understand the ways in which social structures and school organizations need to be reformed to serve them well,” according to the report.

Steps education leaders can take to make campuses poverty responsive are:

  • Having an asset-based mindset around students instead of focusing on perceived deficits and enacting strategies to build on students’ strengths.
  • Establishing partnerships within communities to address out-of-school issues.
  • Recognizing that many students living in poverty are dependent on their school for supports and making sure their school is a place they can count on.

Strategies for schools

Though schools can’t end deep childhood poverty alone, they are a key component in building equal opportunities. Three strategies that can be used in schools to best serve students living in deep poverty include addressing funding adequacy and equity; developing community schools and partnerships; and developing a whole child teaching and learning culture.

From having qualified teachers, reasonable class sizes and adequate textbooks to computers, facilities and curriculum offerings, analyses has found that schools that serve large numbers of students of color and those from low-income households have significantly less resources than schools that serve more affluent white students.

Further, having adequate and equitable funding is made difficult when most states don’t have fair school finance formulas. Fair funding formulas are defined in the report as having two components: a sufficient level of funding for all students and increased funding for high-poverty districts, criteria that is met by California’s Local Control Funding Formula.

“This is a challenge that has a solution. Newly available data sets and statistical approaches show that reforms creating more adequate and equitable funding have had a direct positive impact on student outcomes and lifelong success,” the report states. “Equity of opportunity is essential for establishing policies that allow all students living in deep poverty to thrive.”

For community schools and partnerships, the focus on integrating academic, health and social services with community development and engagement has been proven to lead to positive student outcomes like reduced absenteeism.

The last point the report emphasizes is tending to the whole child and homing in on students’ strengths, needs and interests is important to fostering secure attachments and affirming relationships. These relationships and learning conditions can offset the effects of trauma and spur growth, according to research. An educator’s familiarity with a student and their family also greatly benefits the academic achievement of children who are living in deep poverty.

“Education alone cannot end deep poverty, but it is an essential ingredient in eliminating childhood poverty and transforming lives. All children, including those who come from deeply poor families, have a right to develop their talents,” the report states. “By educating the whole child in caring, inclusive schools, communities can address the full range of children’s needs, and the trauma related to living in conditions of deep poverty can be mitigated and, possibly, healed.”