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Why Poverty Matters In Idaho School Rankings

Adams Elementary School
Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

Idaho’s Department of Education releases its list today of school rankings for the 2012-2013 school year. It’s based on a five star system the state began last year.

Five star schools are considered high performing. Those at the bottom have to follow an improvement plan under state scrutiny. In last year’s rating list there was something most one star schools had in common: poverty. Take Boise’s Hawthorne Elementary where Beverly Boyd is principal.

“This school is in a great neighborhood. There’s some really nice homes and also some trailer parks and lower income,” Boyd says. “And so we have students who come from, I’d say a middle class or lower middle class background. And then we have some students who also have parents who are making a poverty-type wage.”

About 68 percent of Hawthorne’s students were low income during the 2011-2012 school year, the year they got a one star rating. That’s based on students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. Of Idaho’s one star schools, more than half have as many or more, low income students as Hawthorne.

School poverty, star ranking
Credit Data: Idaho Dept. of Education | Chart: Emilie Ritter Saunders

We chose 68 percent as our benchmark for these charts because that's the percent of low income students at Hawthorne, the school we're highlighting.  Of five star schools, only about a tenth have poverty levels as high or higher than Hawthorne.

School poverty, star ranking
Credit Data: Idaho Dept. of Education | Chart: Emilie Ritter Saunders

“I’m not surprised that there is a relationship between the star rating and the number of kids who live in poverty in those schools,” says Kathleen Budge, who teaches education at Boise State.

Budge says the correlation between poverty and low student performance is one of the most persistent problems in American education. There’s a long list of disadvantages kids from poor homes have when they come to school.

“For instance, poverty affects physical health and mental well-being. And both of those things are important when a child comes to school,” adds Budge. 

Beverly Boyd says one of her biggest challenges is dealing with the issues kids bring with them from home.

“Once the students are here at school everything is great,” Boyd says. “They’re good students and they follow directions and the want to learn and they want to please. The problem is some pretty significant things may have happened outside of school that’s impacting them emotionally.”

But Boyd continually downplays the impact of poverty on her school. She says it did have some influence on the test scores that brought the one-star rating but other things mattered more. She says since she came on board two years ago, they’ve changed their math teaching strategy and a teacher who was struggling professionally has left.

In east Boise, Adams Elementary is flanked by historic 19th Century mansions in one of Boise’s wealthiest areas. It was ranked as a five star school last year. Principal Jeff Roberts says he knows his school has advantages.

“I think that the biggest advantage we have here is that the cultural norm is very high performance,” Roberts says.

He mentions as an example a teacher who came to Adams from another school.

“He gave a spelling test to his fifth grade class and every student had every spelling word correct. And he came to me and said ‘what do I do?’” Roberts recalls.  

Roberts says most of his students have highly educated parents who encourage their kids to do well in school and help them with homework. Budge says it’s a common misconception that poor parents don’t value education. She points to research that says that’s not true. But many poor parents who are not well educated themselves, she says, have a hard time helping their kids with school work and even conveying to them the importance of things like going to college. Boyd says many of her students struggle just to do homework at all.

“I have a lot of families that are doubled up, so they have multiple families living in one dwelling,” she says. “It’s very chaotic. They don’t have even a spot at a kitchen table where they can do homework. They don’t have access to computers.”      

Hawthorne and Adams are similar in size. They’re both in mid-20th Century buildings in good repair. But there are some noticeable differences between the two schools. For example if you visit Adams on a school day Jeff Roberts says, you’ll see lots of parents.

“We have enough that we started making permanent name tags for our parents because we were running out of the temporary ones,” He says. “I would say there are probably about 75 to 100 who come in regularly in all different classrooms.”

He says the parents are grouped by expertise; science, math, art. That way they can help with coaching students in specific areas. At Hawthorne Boyd says she has a core group of parents who are incredible. They run fundraisers, go to PTO meeting and volunteer in classrooms.   

“But we also lack in other people volunteering and stepping up to assist,” she says. “So there is a little bit of frustration there amongst that core group of parents because they’re the ones who really do everything for the school.”  

Her core group of parents consists of eight people. Boyd says more parents want to help but their jobs don’t give them the flexibility. Kathleen Budge says that’s one of the most common challenges poor schools face.

But she says high poverty schools can also be high performing schools. She’s co-authored a book on the subject. But Budge says it starts with an unusually dedicated group of teachers and their principal.

“I so value educators, who work in high poverty schools because the job is just harder,’ she says. “There’s no getting around that. But It makes it a lot easier on their school if they have the support of their district and their community and neighborhood. It’s so much better when that happens.”

Beverly Boyd says she and her teachers have turned Hawthorne into a high performing school. She’s confident that when the state hands out the new star ratings Thursday afternoon they’ll have more stars than last year. Jeff Roberts says at Adams they don’t worry much about how many stars they get. They teach how they think is best and let the test scores take care of themselves.

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio

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