Jenny Reed is deputy director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Soumya Bhat is an education finance and policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
Poverty makes it harder for children to succeed in school. And every day, tens of thousands of D.C. schoolchildren walk into a classroom with a heavy weight on their shoulders. That’s because children in poverty are more likely to be hungry or malnourished, exposed to trauma, stress or violence, affected by family or neighborhood turmoil or faced with severe health problems.
Addressing the effects of poverty, then, is key to unlocking opportunities and closing the achievement gap in the District.
The good news is that the District has a unique opportunity to strengthen services for low-income students. This year, D.C. Public Schools and each charter school received an additional $2,000 per at-risk student. Investing in school-based supports that go beyond classroom instruction — from mental health services to robust after-school programs — is a proven way to increase attendance, raise grades and test scores and reduce behavioral problems.
Schools are naturally and rightly focused on learning. But schools are also an ideal location to deliver services, because it is easier for children and families to take advantage of them and because social services staff can team up with teachers to meet a child’s academic and other needs.
The District offers a number of programs that help low-income students succeed in the classroom, but there are still large gaps. The number of homeless students is rising, but federal funding is low and falling. More than 5,000 children in the District don’t have access to needed mental health services. There are after-school slots for less than one-quarter of children who need them. And school nurses, social workers and psychologists at several schools have caseloads well beyond industry standards.
Here are some important things that can be done:
●Help for homeless students: In some schools, as many as one-fourth of the students are homeless. The District should provide additional support for school-based staff coping with a sharp rise in homelessness, and the city should reassess supports for homeless students to identify gaps.
●More resources for after-school and summer programs: Because of limited resources, D.C.’s schools open their doors to after-school providers, but more could be done to help these nonprofits cover program costs. The District should ensure that all low-income students have access to meaningful activities after school and in the summer, when low-income students lose ground.
●Better school-based health services: The School Behavioral Health Program serves slightly more than one-third of schools and should be expanded, and the District should add needed social workers and psychologists. School-Based Health Centers, now limited to some high schools, should be opened in middle schools, and every school should have a full-time nurse.
●Focus on parent and community engagement: The District is making progress to engage parents in their children’s education through privately funded parent-teacher home visits that give families information to support their children’s learning at home. The District should help more high-poverty schools participate. It should also scale up its Community Schools initiative that partners with community organizations to turn public schools into hubs for key services such as health care or adult literacy. There are six grantees (at 11 schools) operating Community School partnerships in the District, but the model should be expanded to all high-poverty schools.
Poverty shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to say that low-income children can’t succeed. They can. However, poverty puts tremendous pressure on children and makes it so much harder for them to take advantage of the quality education system that the District is building. Expansion of these non-instructional supports is critical to removing barriers to learning and unlocking opportunities for children living in poverty.