When Will We Address the Needs in High-Needs Schools?

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With less than a month before students return to school, not all families count down with excitement to the first day of classes.

In a recent report on NY1, the education reporter, Lindsey Christ, told of the large number of high-needs schools that are failing.

High-needs schools -- schools with high concentrations of special needs students, most of whom are English language learners and special education students -- exist in abundance in New York.

Many of the 141 New York schools described by Ms. Christ as high needs share another commonality in that they cater to students from families that live below the poverty line.

As educators and administrators work to create curriculums that challenge students daily, they must first navigate the intricate learning backgrounds of each student to determine how to effectively target their learning needs.

High needs schools that do this well outshine other New York City schools on standardized exams. Ms. Christ reports that “21 of the high needs schools have higher than average math scores, 12 have higher English scores and 8 beat the citywide averages in both subjects.”

These are the schools that the Department of Education and in particular the schools chancellor, Dennis M. Walcott, recognize as “knocking the socks off the ball,” as he put it in the NY1 report.

But as Ms. Christ points out, these schools amount to “fewer than 6 percent of high-needs schools beating the odds.”

Instead, she says, most high-needs schools resemble Intermediate School 218 Salome Urena in Washington Heights, where test scores are "among the lowest in the city." Her research shows that at this school “93 percent of the students live in poverty, 44 percent are learning English and 23 percent have special education needs.”

While the Department of Education claims that enrollment patterns do not affect learning outcomes, Ms. Christ’s report suggests otherwise.

An opinion article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera, “Addressing Poverty in Schools,” explains the critical work of Dr. Pamela Cantor, a psychiatrist who specializes in childhood trauma and works tirelessly to combat poverty.

Dr. Cantor, the founder of Turnaround for Children, supports a program that places a three-person team in schools to work with administrators, teachers and social workers for several years. One person works alongside the principal to help create a positive learning environment. The second person aids teachers by showing them tools to successfully work with high-need learners. And the third person trains social workers to help students with psychological and emotional trouble while directing them to outside services that can assist them further.

Though Turnaround experiments with new techniques and, as Mr. Nocera points out, is still small, it is one approach to tackling the systemic problem of poverty experienced by one out of three New York City children.

Earlier this year, Mark Naison, a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University and the director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, wrote a blog post about impoverished students who cannot fully function in schools because they must devote their energies to more urgent needs, including those related to their very survival.

Educators told Dr. Naison about students who “move from apartment to apartment or house to house when their parents or grandparents can’t pay rent; experience bouts of homelessness where they sleep in shelters, temporary residences, and occasionally subways or cars; and move in and out of foster care. Sometimes students disappear for days or weeks at a time. Sometimes they disappear altogether.”

When students do make it to school, they often worry about when, where and what they will eat next.

Arguably the most alarming part of Dr. Naison’s observations surrounds his revelation that some students bring their entire families to student health centers, since this is their only opportunity for access to medical care.

One teacher Dr. Naison spoke to summed up his regard for the school he works in with seven words: “This is the place that God forgot.”

Some of the social injustices Dr. Naison describes may very well affect learners in high-needs schools. Sadly, it may also affect students in many other schools across New York and in other states.

The stories Dr. Naison shares, the numbers Ms. Christ puts forth, and the possible solutions Mr. Nocera publishes are few that people are willing to recognize.

People avoid them since they call attention to a reality no one wants to acknowledge -- a reality grounded in destitution.

If we fail to attack mainstream economic issues now, then any attempts to improve existing school systems will collapse under a much greater problem: poverty.

Empty wallets, empty stomachs and empty minds will persist.

When will we, as a society, decide that enough is enough? What will it take for us to act?