Divided We Learn

OPINION: ‘When our students arrive Monday morning, many haven’t eaten a real meal since they left school on Friday’

A Virginia principal on achieving equity amid poverty

In many schools, it takes much more than good teaching to meet students’ needs. Issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, abuse and chronic stress can have a significant impact in the classroom.

Highland View Elementary is a preK–5 school serving approximately 200 students and their families in Bristol, Virginia. More than 99 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, and approximately one-third of those who enter our school won’t stay through the school year.

The Highland View faculty and staff strongly believe that students’ physical, social and mental health, along with proper nutrition, contribute to academic success and more healthy lifestyles. With the support of our school board and superintendent, we facilitate several programs dedicated to giving our students every advantage possible to reach their fullest potential.

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Here are some ways that high-poverty schools can address the inequities and barriers that create opportunity gaps, so we can give our students a better chance for a bright future.

It’s difficult for children to be hungry for knowledge when they’re physically hungry for food and emotionally hungry for attention.

When our students arrive Monday morning, many haven’t eaten a real meal since they left school on Friday. Across Virginia, more than 300,000 children live in food-insecure households, meaning they don’t have reliable access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. Thanks to state and federal programs, we can provide all of our students with three no-cost meals at school and a weekend snackpack.

Another challenge is that many students arrive at school feeling stressed out or traumatized by their home environment. They don’t just come to school in need of an education; they come to us in need of social-emotional support. So, each morning, we watch students as they arrive. We look for signs of trouble so we can address it early with counseling or other support to ease their transition into the school environment. Students know they can get a hug from me if they need it. Sometimes that alone is enough to calm them so they can settle into learning.

We have other programs such as a running club that meets at 7:15 a.m. Monday through Thursday. In addition to encouraging physical fitness, this club is designed to provide social support, build teamwork, reduce stress and trauma, and help the brain become ready for learning.

We don’t judge or blame students — or their families — when they show up hungry because there’s no food at home, or tired because they don’t have a bed to sleep in, or wearing dirty clothes. Instead, we provide solutions wherever we can. For example, we keep a washer and dryer in a storage room and use it throughout the day. We have a collection of clothing donations so students have something to wear while their clothes are being washed. Most importantly, we treat our students like they’re our own children.

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When students enter our school, one-third are one or more grade levels below in math and reading. I believe that preschool is the number-one intervention we can offer to prevent issues for children in poverty. Once students enter kindergarten, we provide an array of programs to close gaps and support their academic development and growth.

One such program is an online language and reading intervention called Fast ForWord. What’s different about this program is that it sets the stage for children’s brains to absorb everything that comes their way. It starts with cognitive skills like memory, attention and processing speed, and works from the bottom up using the principles of neuroplasticity to address the root cause of their difficulties. We target this intervention to students at Tiers 2 and 3 of our Response to Intervention program. After participating in this program, students can better focus and pay attention, so they can be more successful with whatever instruction or interventions they receive. Without that focus and attention, you lose them before you even begin an intervention.

We also offer a comprehensive After School program daily from 3 to 5:30 p.m. where students can read, work on homework and participate in intervention or enrichment activities. This, too, is a crucial resource for children living in poverty.

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We rely on a variety of community organizations, social service agencies, nonprofits, churches and local businesses to keep our programs running. From books to shoes to food to medical help, these organizations provide an array of support for students and their families.

In addition, we recently launched a partnership with the Jacobs Creek Job Corps Center, a no-cost program that helps young people ages 16–24 improve the quality of their lives through career technical and academic training. We give Jacobs Creek students access to the Fast ForWord program and, in turn, they come to our school to help with projects such as painting over the summer. They appreciate the opportunity and are making the most of it. This summer, they made average reading level gains of one year and three months in only 21 days of use. Our goal is to implement this model in our school with students’ parents — many of whom are single mothers — to help them improve their reading skills.

Of course, these are only a fraction of the efforts we’ve undertaken to help our children. We’ve made progress, too, but it’s an ongoing endeavor.

In 2013-14, we reduced the failure rate by 10 percent on our state assessment. In 2015, more than 70 percent of our students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent passed in English. In 2016, however, our test scores slid a bit. With a highly mobile population — in a location that’s just two miles from the state border — it can be difficult to achieve and maintain growth schoolwide, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. The students who are with us do show growth, so we keep pushing forward.

To be successful, we believe that we need to educate and strengthen the whole child and empower the family. At Highland View Elementary, our goal isn’t just to make a difference in students’ and families’ lives; we want to be the difference in their lives.

Pamela Davis Smith is the principal of Highland View Elementary in Bristol, Virginia.


Pamela Davis Smith

Pamela Davis Smith is the principal of Highland View Elementary in Bristol, Virginia. See Archive

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