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Schools can overcome the challenges of poverty — with the right interventions

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When President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper last month to help young men and boys of color reach their full potential, he shared what had made the difference in his own life: “I had people who encouraged me — not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders — and they’d push me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself…They never gave up on me,” he recounted, “and so I didn’t give up on myself.”

Every one of us knows that if there is a success we can point to in our lives, it’s because there were people we couldn’t let down, people who never gave up on us. Having them in our lives made it possible to become the people we became. My Brother’s Keeper — that’s what this really means.

But today, there are a lot of children growing up without enough people in their lives who encourage them, push them, and never give up on them. We must change that now, and one of the best places to start is our schools.

Pamela Cantor

Pamela Cantor

Unfortunately, many of our schools are failing our black and Latino children, failing to educate them and quick to punish them. Today, by the fourth grade, 86% of African-American boys and 82% of Hispanic boys are reading below grade level, compared to 58% of their white male peers. Just 52% of black males and 58% of Hispanic males graduate from high school in four years, compared to 78% of white young men. And black students are almost four times as likely to be suspended as their white classmates; Hispanics twice as likely.

To change this, we must understand the true nature of the challenges children growing up in poverty bring into school every day, and we must intentionally design learning environments to counteract them.

More than one in three boys of color in this country are growing up in poverty. For many, this means experiencing a form of stress that comes with chronic insecurity, hunger, exposure to violence, and loss. Paul Tough explained it vividly in his book How Children Succeed, Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, describing this as “allostatic load.” These boys don’t shed their experience at the classroom door. This kind of stress can cause them to be distracted, tuned out, nervous, and impulsive. It interferes with the ability to focus, interact with others, tackle rigorous academic material, and progress in school successfully.  It makes it harder for schools to prepare them for college and career.

Children who have always attended underperforming schools often start off behind, and the gap widens with every passing year. Failures and disappointments mount, dissolve confidence, erode motivation and will, and undermine a belief in education as the best path to opportunity. When many children in a school building are falling farther behind, experiencing frustration and failure, their challenges multiply and can overwhelm a school.

We can change this right now. Schools around the country are setting a powerful example that with the right supports and interventions, we can grow our young boys of color into the leaders of tomorrow. But these schools are too often doing it alone.

Recently, educators have tapped into decades of research on the science of learning, stress, and resilience to develop powerful teaching and learning environments for all students. Surely there will always be some great schools throughout the country, led by visionary principals and filled with committed staff who figure out how to meet students’ needs in any way possible. But President Obama’s call to action is to create a system that doesn’t leave schools on their own, a system that sees boys of color as the journalists, scientists, and teachers who will drive our country forward.

To create this system, we must use what we already know to intentionally design and build fortified environments for teaching and learning – fortified to reduce stress; fortified to promote strong connections to adults, peers, families, and communities; fortified to aggressively address academic recovery; fortified to deliver rigorous and engaging content; and fortified to promote attributes common among all successful students. In this environment, a school is filled with adults who fire up their students, grow their confidence, increase their stamina, never give up on them, and never let them give up on themselves. Imagine what could happen if every school had the knowledge, skills, and tools to create this kind of teaching and learning environment.

“I had people who encouraged me — not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders …They never gave up on me, and so I didn’t give up on myself.” — President Barack Obama

That’s why my organization – Turnaround for Children – and several others are making the case for fortified environments for teaching and learning, environments that reflect the power of the President’s call to action.

What does this look like on the ground? At the more than 80 high poverty public schools Turnaround has worked with, it means creating a teaching and learning environment that supports the needs of every student. It means training every adult in the building in practices that increase student engagement, defuse disruption and personalize learning. It means creating individual student support for those that need it. And it means changing the climate from one that is often chaotic, punitive and filled with low expectations to one where the assumption is all children are capable of high levels of learning.

When put into place at a school such as the Wheatley Education Campus in Washington, we see increased student attendance, fewer suspensions, higher teacher retention and higher proficiency among students. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the change over time is dramatic and sustainable.

Initiatives like the president’s are so important because they help bring together all of the stakeholders we need to scale this effort — the private and nonprofit sectors, philanthropy, faith communities, educators and government. With their continued collaboration and perseverance, we have a real chance to change the trajectory for millions of young men, and women too.

Pamela Cantor, M.D., is president of Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that seeks to transform public education so that high-poverty schools across America are designed to confront the predictable and recurring challenges of poverty as they manifest inside schools.

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