Addressing Poverty in Schools

July 27, 2012

About two years ago, Dr. Pamela Cantor gave a speech at a Congressional retreat put together by the Aspen Institute. Her talkwas entitled “Innovative Designs for Persistently Low-Performing Schools.”

Cantor is a psychiatrist who specializes in childhood trauma. After 9/11, her organization, the Children’s Mental Health Alliance, was asked by New York City’s Department of Education to assess the impact of the attack on the city’s public school children. What she found were plenty of traumatized children — but less because of the terrorist attack than because of the simple fact that so many of them were growing up in poverty.

“If children are under stress, the ways they respond are remarkably similar,” she says. “They get sad, distracted, aggressive, and tune out.” That is what she saw in the high-poverty schools she visited. Chaos reigned. The most disruptive children dominated the schools. Teachers didn’t have control of their classrooms — in part because nothing in their training had taught them how to deal with traumatized children. Too many students had no model of what school was supposed to mean. “These were schools that were not ready to be schools,” she said.

The traditional therapist’s response, of course, is to recommend therapy for traumatized children. But that’s an impossible solution in a big-city school of 1,000 or more students. Still, Dr. Cantor wondered, would it be possible to design schools that could, in her words, “address the issues poverty poses as they present in the classroom?” She came to the belief that the answer was yes, and, in 2002, she founded a new organization, Turnaround for Children. It’s what she’s been doing ever since.

Part of the reason this work strikes me as so important is the obvious: there are an immense number of children growing up in poverty — one out of three in New York City alone. The good charter schools can take only a tiny fraction of those children; the rest are in public school, far too many of which are dysfunctional.

The second reason, though, is that Turnaround is trying to bridge an important divide. Part of the debate over school reform is about poverty itself, with the reformers taking the view that a great teacher can overcome the barriers poverty poses, while the other side says that the problems of public schools can’t be solved until poverty itself is alleviated. Cantor is suggesting an alternative way of thinking — that students in public schools can do well if the issues they face are dealt with head-on, instead of sidestepped.

I have space to give only the barest outline of how it works. A three-person Turnaround team embeds in a group of schools for three to five years. One works with the principal to create a positive, disciplined culture, where students come to believe they can succeed in school. One works with teachers, showing them tools, for instance, that will allow them to handle disruptions while keeping the other students on track. The third is a social worker who helps train the school social workers to help with the psychological and emotional needs of children in poverty, while identifying the most troubled students, the ones who can drive the entire school. Instead of suspending them, or expelling them, though, Turnaround contracts with mental health organizations to provide them with services. That sends an important signal to the other students.

I should stress that even after a decade, Turnaround is still an experiment, and relatively small. In 2008, it underwent an independent evaluation by the American Institutes for Research, which showed that its schools had far fewer disruptions and were generally calmer, safer, indeed, happier places. But that same evaluation suggested that Turnaround needed to put more emphasis on improving the academic environment in the classroom. That is what Dr. Cantor and her team are implementing now.

Which brings me back to that speech she gave a few years ago. In it, she laid out her ideas about the importance of facing poverty squarely in schools. They struck a chord. Since then, she has spent a great deal of time in Washington, where officials both in Congress and the White House have been receptive to these ideas. In May, a group of White House officials visited a Turnaround school in Washington, where they were impressed by what they saw. Ultimately, if Dr. Cantor’s ideas gain enough momentum in Washington, they could become part of what the federal government — and school districts across the country — expect from schools.

By refusing to accept the status quo, school reformers kicked off an important movement, long overdue. Although I happen to think there is an overemphasis on test scores, the demand for teacher accountability has also been an important step.

Creating schools that are designed from the start to deal with the predicable challenges of poverty — it is the most important thing we can do next.