Whether it is through animated TV commercials featuring happy children, targeted marketing strategies announcing back-to-school sales, or social media campaigns attempting to get students and parents amped up for the upcoming school year, there seems to be a common narrative about back-to-school time: that the excitement of this time of year is a common experience amongst all students and families. Or at the very least, that it should be. If you have found yourself making this assumption, whether consciously or unconsciously, keep reading.
My experiences as a Latina growing up in an urban, low-income community were challenging. The struggles my siblings and I faced at home and in our neighborhood directly impacted our interactions and performance in school. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood in South Florida, and attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS) since the third grade. Living in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty and high crime rates often determined where I could and could not go; what path to take to school; and what time I should not be outside. At home, we had our unique struggles. My three oldest siblings and I were raised by our grandparents, both of who were retired by the time I reached the third grade. Although our grandparents made up for their financial shortcomings with their unwavering support for our educational dreams, their low-income brought additional challenges.
Despite our young ages, my siblings and I often found ourselves engaging in activities that required a significant amount of responsibility. We regularly assisted my grandmother in caring for my diabetic grandfather by attending hospital visits, keeping up with his medications, and ensuring he had proper nutrition. By the time we were in high school most of my siblings already had part-time jobs to help bring in additional income. Due to our grandparents not speaking English, we also found ourselves translating bills, calling insurance companies, contacting local plumbers, banks, or whomever my grandparents needed to reach. Perhaps the most vivid memories I recall are the days in which we came home from school to our lights being cut off because we missed an electricity payment. As always, my siblings and I had to contact the Florida Power Light (FPL) to troubleshoot. Some days the power would come back quickly, and other days we would sit and anxiously wait in darkness.
Back-to-school time became a burden for my family for many reasons. Given the significant responsibilities my siblings and I had at home, going to school often felt like another task added to our list. There were nights when we had to rush my grandfather to the hospital and still had to show up to school the next morning. Back-to-school time also meant long days, as I witnessed my siblings take two different bus routes for several hours after school to get to their part-time work, just to do it again the very next day. Not to mention the financial burden of buying uniforms, school supplies, and sneakers, not for one, but for four young people. Lastly, given that we lived in a high crime neighborhood and walked to school, concerns of safety also became more prevalent during back-to-school time.
The Stats and Beyond
What is troubling is that these experiences are not unique to my family. Instead, they are the everyday reality for 24 percent of students attending high-poverty schools. And yet, despite this unfortunate reality, students like myself often feel forced to be “excited” on the first day of school, and frowned upon if we seem “disengaged” in class – but do teachers ever wonder why?
Figure 1. Percentage distribution of public school students, for each racial and ethnic group, by school poverty level: Fall 2016
This August, 50.8 million students were predicted to attend K-12 public schools across the U.S. Although children make up only 23% of the U.S. population, they comprise 32% of all people living in poverty. In 2017, nearly one in five children in the U.S., or 12,808,000, lived in poverty, with American Indian/Alaska Native (31.1%), Black (28.7%), and Hispanic (25%) children having the highest poverty rates, respectively.
For adults, the poverty statistics by race are similar, leading to contrasts between the teacher workforce and the students in their classroom. Although since 2014 the majority of the K-12 student population is comprised of non-White students, the elementary and secondary teacher workforce remains overwhelmingly White (82%). Thus, as more non-White students enter K-12 classrooms, who are more likely to live in poverty compared to their White peers, it is imperative for educators to understand not only their students’ lived experiences, but more importantly, their community. Asking teachers to immerse themselves in their students’ community is no longer optional, but necessary if we want to achieve educational equity.
Inequitable Classrooms and Why Student Context Matters
All too often, non-White students’ knowledge, experiences, and communities are disregarded in classrooms. For instance, the books students read are overwhelmingly written by White authors, making it difficult for Black and Brown children to relate to the content given their unrepresented narratives. Equally troubling, many educators unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes and mindsets about students from low-income communities – the very same students they teach. This often includes teachers giving less challenging work to non-White students because “they are not there yet,” or discouraging English-language learners from speaking their Native Language because it hinders them from assimilating into “American culture.” Combined, these actions cause students from low-income communities to feel unmotivated, inferior, and unworthy.
Creating equitable classrooms starts by understanding why context matters. Even if teachers often have the best intentions for their students, they cannot meaningfully support them if they do not understand their students’ needs and what they are experiencing inside and outside of the classroom. There were numerous occasions on the first day of school when former teachers of mine equated our actions, such as not participating in class, being tardy, or not having school supplies as “not being interested in school.” I often sat at my desk in frustration wondering “would you ever get it?”
Part of the reason why some teachers still don’t “get it” is in large part due to their lack of local knowledge about their students’ lives, neighborhoods, and family dynamics. Additionally, for White teachers in particular, it is often difficult to reflect on how their privilege around race, social status, and class directly informs what they think about their students and how they interact with them.
Consider the following quotes from two ninth-grade students attending a low-income high school in Miami, FL:
“My biggest milestone so far would be working. I chose to work because this way I can buy my own things and help my mom pay the bills, which is very important to me.”
“A goal I have achieved is making it to high school because no one on my father’s side of the family touched a high school floor… I never thought I would make it to high school.”
Similar to my family, these students are experiencing additional challenges outside of school including working part-time jobs and being the first person in their family to make it to high school. Regrettably, teachers often miss the bigger picture because they are likely unfamiliar with what their low-income students are experiencing. While it might seem as though showing up to school is not good enough, to some students and families, just being in school is their proudest achievement, as it displays their commitment to learning, despite their circumstances:
“A goal in my life that I have achieved is coming to school every day to get my education for the future of my life.”
For educators and those involved in teaching our young people, the next time you find yourself frustrated because students don’t seem “excited” or “engaged” in school, whether it is on the first day or the last day of school, instead of shaming students consider asking yourself “why might that be?”, and actively work towards fostering trust and a sense of community.
Supporting Equity-Driven Student Success
I would not have graduated high school if I did not have teachers who supported me beyond the school building. Their knowledge about my interests, family dynamics, and struggles at home allowed them to effectively address my needs. They understood the importance of spending time in my community and in turn were able to develop culturally-relevant pedagogy and practices. Kenvin Lacayo, our 2019 Halperin Youth Service Award Winner, also shares a similar sentiment:
“The only year in high school I actually enjoyed was because of the added relationships I had with teachers.”
Thankfully, Kenvin and I had teachers to connect with; teachers who believed in us and took the time to have meaningful conversations with us. However, for many low-income students that is not the case. For decades, students like me and Kenvin have experienced the ramifications of a school system that was not designed for students who look like us. Educators often lead classrooms in which trust and a sense of community between teachers and students are absent. As students are starting back at school, educators need to be aware and understand the challenges they face within the classroom and beyond.
Back-to-school conversations overwhelmingly focus on a privileged narrative, often dismissing the struggles experienced by students from low-income communities. Establishing strong relationships with students matter; understanding students’ struggles, communities, and lived experiences matter, and the importance of this understanding and connection should be incorporated into the back-to-school conversation. Until we prioritize social justice and equity in back-to-school conversations, we will continue to do a disservice to our most vulnerable youth. As stated in Preparing Teachers for Deeper Learning:
“There is not an achievement gap, but instead an educational debt. We as educators and aspiring teachers owe students an equitable classroom and education.” –San Francisco Teaching Resident
 High-poverty schools are defined as public schools where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL).