The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools

In almost all major American cities, most African American and Hispanic students attend public schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income, a new analysis of federal data shows.

This systemic economic and racial isolation looms as a huge obstacle for efforts to expand opportunity because researchers have found that the single-most powerful predictor of racial gaps in educational achievement is the extent to which students attend schools surrounded by other low-income students.

Underscoring the breadth of the challenge, the economic segregation of minority students persists across virtually all types of cities, from fast-growing Sunbelt places like Austin, Denver, Dallas, and Charlotte to struggling Rust Belt communities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, to the nation’s largest metropolitan centers, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston. But cities, educators, and researchers are also exploring new ways to abate the negative impact of concentrated poverty on black and brown students.

The economic isolation is so intense that in about half of the largest 100 cities, most African American and Latino students attend schools where at least 75 percent of all students qualify as poor or low-income under federal guidelines. These stark results emerge from a Next America analysis of data from the National Equity Atlas. The Atlas is a joint project of PolicyLink and the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, or PERE. Following federal guidelines, the National Equity Atlas defines low-income students as those eligible for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program. That includes students with incomes up to $44,863 for a family of four, or 185 percent of the federal poverty line. (Students from families with incomes up to the 130 percent of the poverty line, or $31,525 for a family of four, are eligible for free lunch; the remainder can obtain reduced price lunches.)

The overwhelming isolation of students of color in schools with mostly low-income classmates threatens to undermine efforts both to improve educational outcomes and to provide a pipeline of skilled workers for the economy at a time when such students comprise a majority of the nation’s public school enrollment. Educational reformers are quick to underscore that in individual schools around the country dedicated teachers and principals have produced impressive results even for students submerged in communities of pervasive poverty. But, overall, concentrated poverty is tightly correlated with gaps in educational achievement.

“It’s the measure of segregation that is most strongly correlated to the racial achievement gap,” said Sean F. Reardon, a professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of education and one of the nation’s leading experts on residential and educational segregation. “The difference in the rate at which black, Hispanic, and white students go to school with poor classmates is the best predictor of the racial-achievement gap.”

The latest figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics show that nationwide about three-fourths of both African American and Hispanic young people (compared to about one-third of white students) attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as low income. The new Next America/National Equity Atlas analysis expands on that national portrait to examine the extent of economic isolation at the city level. That assessment points to one overwhelming conclusion: economic isolation and the concentration of poverty among students of color afflicts not only a few struggling cities, but virtually all cities—including many that have seen the most robust growth in jobs, incomes and population since the Great Recession.

The economic segregation facing African American and Hispanic students represents the convergence of many trends, including the stubbornly high rates of childhood poverty since the Great Recession; persistent patterns of housing segregation in many major cities; the increasing economic polarization in many metropolitan areas that has resulted in more residents living either in affluent or poor neighborhoods, and fewer residing in middle-income communities; and the general retreat from efforts to promote racial or economic integration in the schools. Together these factors have left most African American and Hispanic students marooned in schools where economic struggle is the rule and financial stability—and all the social and educational benefits that flow from that—is very much the exception. “Kids who spend more than half of their childhood in poverty have a high-school graduation rate of 68 percent,” said Abigail Langston, a senior associate at PolicyLink, and a public fellow at the American Council of Learned Societies. “You see how these things compound over time. There is a link between housing policy, economic and racial segregation, you see what those do to schools and to people who grow up in those neighborhoods. There is a vicious feedback loop.”

The issue, Reardon said, isn’t “that sitting next to a poor kid makes you do less well in school.” Rather, he said, “it’s that school poverty turns out to be a good proxy for the quality of a school. They are in poorer communities, they have less local resources, they have fewer parents with college degrees, they have fewer two parent families where there are parents who can come spend time volunteering in the school, they have a harder time attracting the best teachers. So for a lot of reasons schools serving poor kids tend to have fewer resources, both economic and social capital resources.”

Students sit down for lunch at Rose Hill Elementary School in Commerce City, Colorado. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

The cumulative effect of these disadvantages has proven overwhelming almost everywhere. Reardon and his colleagues have studied test scores for students in all of the nation’s roughly 12,000 school districts. And while they have not finished sorting all of the data, the preliminary results underscore how difficult it is for schools alone to overcome the interlocking challenges created by the economic segregation of low-income students.

“We can look at every poor district in the United States and see if there are any that are doing reasonably well, where kids are performing at least at the national average,” Reardon says. “And the answer is virtually none. You can find isolated schools that are doing…better than you would predict. But the weight of socioeconomic disadvantage—or, on the other side of the scale, of advantage—is really quite big. We don’t have much evidence of places that have been systematically successful when they serve very large populations of low-income students. It’s a big lift.“

Those daunting findings reinforce the gravity of the economic isolation for students of color that the National Equity Atlas/Next America analysis documents. Among the key findings:

  • Kids of color represent a majority of the student body in 83 of the 100 largest cities. In all but three of those 83 cities (Honolulu, and Chula Vista and Fremont, in California), at least half of them attend a school where a majority of their peers are poor or low-income. In 58 of those cities, at least three-fourths of non-white students attend majority low-income schools.

  • Data is available for African American students in 97 large cities. In 83 of those 97 cities (or 85.6 percent), the majority of African American students attends schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor or low income. In 54 of those cities, at least 80 percent of black students attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor or low-income.

The cities where the very highest shares of African American students attend mostly low-income schools testify to the breadth of the problem. They include communities from all corners of the country, and range from weathered Rust Belt communities (like Detroit and Newark) to Sunbelt high-fliers (like Dallas, Houston, and Nashville). In order, the cities where the most black students attend majority low-income schools include: Detroit; San Bernardino, Calif.; Newark; Milwaukee; Birmingham, Ala.; Hialeah, Fla.; Boston; Chicago; Philadelphia; New York; Memphis, Tenn.; Baton Rouge, La.; Dallas; North Las Vegas; Stockton, Calif.; Wichita, Kan.; New Orleans; Tulsa, Okla.; Houston; and Miami.

Only in 14 of the 97 cities with available data do less than half of black students attend majority low-income schools. The cities with the very lowest share of blacks in high-poverty schools include San Jose, Reno, and Colorado Springs. But most of those 14 have relatively small black student populations. In 11 of those cities, black students represent 11 percent of the student population or less, with the exceptions only of Raleigh, and Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, Virginia.

Students listen to a lesson during seventh grade class at Samuel J. Green Charter School in New Orleans. (Lee Celano/Reuters)

Among Hispanic students, the picture is noticeably similar. Data is available for them in 96 cities; in 85 (or 88.5 percent), a majority of Hispanic students attend schools with mostly low-income classmates. In 53, at least 80 percent of Hispanic students attend majority low-income schools. The cities where the most Hispanic kids attend schools of concentrated poverty also span the spectrum. In order, they include: Detroit; Newark; San Bernardino, Calif.; Philadelphia; Milwaukee; Boston; Dallas; Irving, Texas; Chicago; Oakland, Calif.; Hialeah, Fla.; North Las Vegas, Nev.; Los Angeles; Santa Ana, Calif.; Nashville and Memphis, Tenn.; New York; Baton Rouge, La.; Anaheim, Calif.; and Wichita, Kan.

Only in 11 of the 96 cities with available data do fewer than half of Hispanic students attend schools where most of their classmates qualify as poor. Those 11 also have relatively small Latino student populations. Only four of those cities—Colorado Springs; Plano, Texas; Chandler, Arizona; and Henderson, Nevada—have schools where Latinos represent more than 20 percent of their student body. Even in those four, Latino students represent less than a third of students.

In fully 82 of the 96 cities with data for both African American and Hispanic students, at least half of both groups attend majority low-income schools. In 65 of those 96 cities, at least 70 percent of both black and Hispanic students attend majority low-income schools. In Chicago, 96 percent of both black and Latino students attend majority-poverty schools. In New York City, 96 percent of black and 95 percent of Latino students attend majority low-income schools. And in Los Angeles, 85 percent of black and 96 percent of Latino students attend schools where a majority of their peers are poor.    

The experience for white students, who now represent a minority of the public school student body nationwide, remains very different. Figures are available for whites in 95 cities. Only in 35 of them (or almost 37 percent) do most white students attend schools where a majority of their classmates qualify as poor. At least 80 percent of whites attend majority low-income schools in just six cities (compared to 54 cities for African Americans and 55 for Hispanics). The cities where such large level of whites experience concentrated poverty are all places confronting long-term economic decline: Detroit; Newark; Hialeah, Fla.; San Bernardino, and Stockton, Calif.; and Jersey City. That stands in clear contrast to the economic isolation confronting minority students even in many thriving cities.

Even more strikingly, in 49 cities, or over half the total where data is available, fewer than 30 percent of white students attend majority low-income schools. In just 11 cities do so few African American students attend majority low-income schools; for Hispanics, the number is just seven cities.

The trends in the patterns of schools experiencing the deepest economic isolation—institutions where at least 75 percent of students qualify as poor or low-income—further underscore the stark racial divergence in these findings. In just four cities do most white students attend schools where at least three-fourths of their classmates qualify as low-income. But most black students attend schools confronting that level of concentrated poverty in fully 51 cities; for Hispanics the number is 54.

These high levels of concentrated poverty in schools persist—and have increased overall—even in cities where there has been tremendous growth since the recession. Many advocates for low-income communities say economic isolation in the schools represents one of the most complex and consequential barriers to equalizing opportunity. “It seems to be the thing that everybody points to as the biggest challenge,” said Sarah Treuhaft, PolicyLink’s director of equitable growth initiatives. “It’s the hardest nut to crack because these issues are so deeply entrenched [due to] the housing issues that have created segregated communities. Bussing is a challenging solution. People like to attend their neighborhood schools; and there is so much pushback on integration. There are deep structural issues that can’t be tackled one at a time.”

Fifth-grade art class students at Savoy School in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Likewise, Reardon said it’s unrealistic to expect to bridge these disparities solely through changes in the schools themselves. “We don’t have much evidence that we can make major improvements in educational equality solely through school policy alone,” he said. “Educational policy has to be part of the picture. But we need more than that. We need to think about residential integration…we need to think about school integration, which gets easier when you have more residential integration, we need to think about increasing economic parity between blacks and whites.” In some cities, urban leaders are trying new strategies to confront these trends. They are driven by a belief that for prosperity to continue, they need to craft policy that ensures their own young people are equipped to compete for the jobs the city is creating.

Dallas is one city focusing more on these dynamics. “North Texas is on fire in terms of job growth, it’s just been disproportionately shared in terms of who got the jobs,” said Todd Williams, the executive director of Commit! Partnership, a nonprofit working to improve college and career readiness levels in Dallas County, Texas. “Part of our issue is that we need to improve the overall quality of our schools.”

In Dallas, one of the country’s fastest-growing cities, almost 80 percent of students attend a high-poverty school, according to the Next America/National Equity Atlas data analysis. It ranks fifth among the largest 100 cities by share of students attending high-poverty schools, behind only Hialeah, Florida; San Bernardino, California; Newark; and Chicago. The levels of poverty deepen in comparisons by race. More than 83 percent of Dallas’ black students and 88 percent of its Latino students attend high-poverty schools.

Tackling that level of concentrated poverty is what Mayor Mike Rawlings has called the “most important challenges Dallas faces as a city.” For Williams, who is also Rawlings’ education policy adviser, Dallas’ future economy depends entirely on whether the city will be able to adequately educate and prepare all of its students for the workforce. “We have something like a 5-6 percent college readiness rate for our African American and Hispanic children, and they represent 80 percent of our enrollment,” said Williams. “If we don’t figure this out over the next 12 years, we’re going to be graduating a lot of students who aren’t ready for post-secondary education. In a 2025 economy, that’s absolutely suicidal.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has set a goal for 60 percent of adults statewide to have some post-secondary training by 2030. In Dallas, that challenge is formidable: 34 percent of adults in Dallas County now have post-secondary training, according to Williams’ Commit! Partnership. Yet only 14 percent of recent graduates were prepared for college, according to the Texas Education Agency’s standards for ACT and SAT scores for reading and math. Only a little over one-fourth of the county’s graduates complete a postsecondary program within six years.

The city is already feeling the economic consequences, says Williams, as companies relocate to other cities in north Texas that can provide a more skilled workforce. “We’re going to continue to go backwards in our goal to have 60 percent of adults with postsecondary degrees if we don’t make a very concerted effort,” he said. To that end, Dallas ISD has launched a bonus program to incentivize its best teachers to teach at struggling schools. It is now focused on expanding funding and access to pre-kindergarten programs, says Williams, as well as opening STEAM and P-Tech high schools, and implementing a “controlled choice” model of socioeconomic integration across the district.

Controlled-choice integration is a strategy at various stages of implementation in many cities that has so far demonstrated positive academic outcomes and cost savings. Strategies on how exactly to implement it vary, but ultimately parents rank their top picks in a lottery system, and the district reserves half of each school’s seats to low-income and half to higher-income students. Socioeconomic integration is a legal alternative to racial reintegration—ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2007 in the case of Parents Involved v. Seattle—that largely produces the same effect. It is also more popular option among parents than citywide busing because they want their children to attend nearby schools, said Brad Lander, a member of the New York City Council. To encourage experimentation with the controlled-choice model, the White House has included a $120 million grant program in this year’s budget for school districts interested in integrating their schools by socioeconomic status.

The controlled choice option is one valuable tool if it’s employed with other strategies to uphold school quality, said Sonja Brookins Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy at Education Trust, a non-profit group that advocates for low-income students. That system can work when districts improve the quality of all schools, so none are “bad options,” and when resources within each individual school—like advanced placement classes—are available to all students, she says. Parents also need to have access to racial achievement gaps to track progress, especially as schools integrate. “In some of the districts where I’ve been, with highly sought-after charters and schools, when I asked achievement data to be broken down by race and gender, there were huge gaps even though the overall [data were positive],” she said.

New York is still in the early planning stages in implementing controlled choice in a handful of districts, though it’s a model Lander says he’d like to eventually see expand throughout the city. In the meantime, he and fellow councilmember Ritchie Torres introduced legislation that now requires the city’s department of education to provide annual reports on school diversity. “What you measure is what you’re paying attention to and we weren’t paying attention year over year to school segregation,” Lander said. “This requires that every year we look and see how we’re doing, are we doing better or worse than last year, what are we doing about it? Over time it will also be the place to go to see whether our strategies are working or not.”

When People of Color Are Discouraged From Going Into the Arts

When I was 10, my friend’s mother, who was a script supervisor for the sitcom Designing Women, asked me to audition for a part on the show. The role was that of a Vietnamese boat child named Li Sing, who Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke) agrees to foster for a few weeks. The casting director was having trouble finding enough Asian child actors to audition for the role.

I’d never acted before, and I remember rehearsing the script in the car on the way to the studio. I was supposed to be in Suzanne’s “powder room,” playing with all of her fancy bath products, bantering with her in broken English. Never mind that I was actually Korean American, born in Los Angeles, and spoke like a valley girl—this was the role that was available to me as an Asian.

I didn’t get the part, and that was the beginning and the end of my career in Hollywood. But I often think of it now, especially as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has revealed the industry’s continued failure to reflect the diversity of the country. Like many people, I agree the Oscars are the symptom, not the cause, of the problem—that there’s a need to create more diverse content by opening up the ranks of writers, producers, casting directors, and other power players to women and people of color. Asian people shouldn’t always be depicted as foreigners and nerds, just as black people shouldn’t always be typecast as thugs or comic sidekicks, or Latino people as maids and gangbangers.

Yet what happens when people of color are discouraged—both implicitly as well as explicitly—from going into the arts and humanities? Here, I’m not just talking about the lack of mentors or opportunities in these fields. I’m also talking about pressures from politicians, from college administrators, even from one’s own family.

At a public institution like my own, the pressure to go into STEM fields is unrelenting. As The New York Times recently reported, “Frustrated by tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and university for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.” For students like my own, many of whom are first-generation college students with families to support, this makes compelling sense.

My own parents, Korean immigrants who moved to this country in the 1970s, believed that education was a path towards job security and financial stability. Facing barriers of language and opportunity, they ended up owning a liquor store and then a fast-food restaurant. Before STEM was STEM, they wanted me to go into engineering or medicine or accounting because they didn’t want me to face the same precarious financial existence they faced. They also believed that fields like math and science, with their purported “objectivity,” might prove more meritocratic or hospitable for someone like me, someone who would always be perceived as a racial other.

They were well-intentioned, I know. But there were also unintended consequences. For one thing, shunting Asian children into STEM fields helped perpetuate stereotypes that this was the only thing Asians were good at—that we were all brainy, number-crunching automatons, good with a calculator and a slide rule. For another, it discouraged kids like me—kids who wanted to major in the arts or humanities, kids who wanted to be writers, or artists, or actors, or anything “creative.” The novelist Alexander Chee talks about “the pressures on the children of immigrants to make anything except art.” The actor Ken Jeong talks about being “Koreaned” into becoming a doctor. But without people like Chee defying social and cultural pressures to create a novel with a gay Korean American protagonist—without people like Ken Jeong leaving medicine to become the creator, writer, and star of a successful television sitcom featuring an Asian American family—we’re left with the same crisis of representation that erases people of color from cultural products like literature, film, and television.

Against my parents’ wishes, I went to graduate school in English literature, a decision almost as bad as telling them I wanted to be an actor, or an artist, or a novelist. On the one hand, at least it was still “school”—a good thing—but in the humanities, without the guarantee of a job at the end—a very bad thing. And I won’t deny it was difficult. There were very few students and faculty of color in my English graduate program. Most of my classmates were the kids of professors or other professionals, who helped them navigate academia or supported them financially when they couldn’t make rent or find a job. I nearly quit several times. And I’m brutally honest with my own students who want to be writers or professors that there’s no guarantee of success at the end. At the same time, I can’t bring myself to discourage them completely. Without these students attempting to break into these fields, that means one less voice in the writers room, one less teacher of color in the front of the classroom, one less example that you don’t have to look a certain way in order to have something to say.

I now teach African American literature at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where more than 50 percent of the students identify as a racial or ethnic minority. We recently read Booker T. Washington, who at the turn of the 20th century thought the study of French and music were secondary to the more valuable vocational skills that could lift African Americans out of poverty. In response, W. E. B. DuBois cautioned against such narrow worship of material prosperity, arguing that access to the “kingdom of culture” was just as crucial—that African Americans had equally important contributions to make as artists and creators. Looking at my students, I can see them mulling that choice. Some will go into STEM fields, where they will undeniably flourish and do good work. But some, I hope, will become co-workers in the kingdom of culture—and in so doing, shape American culture to reflect more accurately the diversity of its members.

The Consequences of Poor Science Education in Kindergarten

When children start kindergarten, sizable gaps in science knowledge already exist between whites and minorities—as well as between youngsters from upper-income and low-income families. And those disparities often deepen into significant achievement gaps by the end of eighth grade if they aren’t addressed during elementary school.

These are some of the findings in a new report by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of California, Irvine. The study, published this week in an American Educational Research Association journal, tracked 7,757 children from the start of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, providing a rare glimpse into the state of science knowledge of America’s youngest students.

The findings suggest that, in order for the United States to maintain long-term scientific and economic competitiveness in the world, policymakers need to renew efforts to ensure access to high-quality, early learning experiences in childcare settings, pre-schools, and elementary schools. In other words,waiting to address science achievement gaps in middle or high school may be too late.

Diverse


“Unfortunately, as the United States experiences greater income inequality, science achievement gaps may be experienced by progressively larger percentages of children,” the report’s authors wrote. “[Those] with low levels of science achievement may be less able as adults to understand public-policy issues necessitating ever-greater scientific literacy and reasoning as well as experience lower employment and prosperity.”

A general-knowledge test administered during kindergarten measured children’s understanding of the physical, biological, and social sciences. The science-related questions focused on two types of knowledge: conceptual understanding, and skills such as asking questions, drawing conclusions and making predictions.

The researchers found that kindergarteners’ general knowledge about the world was the strongest predictor of their knowledge in first grade, and in turn their science achievement in third grade. Of the kids who had low levels of general knowledge in kindergarten, 62 percent were struggling in science by the time they reached third grade. By eighth grade, 54 percent were still struggling.

General-knowledge gaps between ethnic minorities and whites were substantial from the moment students began kindergarten. Fifty-eight percent of black kindergarteners had general-knowledge scores in the bottom quartile across all racial groups combined, along with 40 percent of Hispanics and 52 percent of American Indians. By contrast, only 15 percent of white kindergarteners were in this bottom quartile.

Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Why Non-Academic Needs Matter, Too

Around 4 p.m. on a recent Friday, Fiorella Guevara got around to eating her lunch. Then she leaned back in the student-sized chair where she was sitting in an empty classroom and let out a long sigh. “Oh man, I’m tired,” said Guevara, the new community-school director at M.S. 50 in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “This is why I never sit down for too long.”

Instead, she bounds from room to room, checking on the classes she oversees, meeting with the principal or calling up parents, pausing just long enough to hug one of the students whose affection she’s earned in her few months on the job.

Chalkbeat


“She is a fireball,” said Franklin Tapia, the parent of an eighth-grader at M.S. 50, whom Guevara recently hired to work as a mentor and soccer coach. “I don’t know how she does it. She’ll come in 9 o’clock in the morning sometimes. and she won’t leave until 9:30, 10 o’clock at night.”

Community-school directors like Guevara play a key role in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to revitalize 94 of New York City’s low-performing schools—including M.S. 50, where just one in 10 students passed last year’s state English tests, and 40 percent of students are considered chronically absent. The mission of community schools is to treat students’ physical or emotional ailments so they can focus on learning. Each director is responsible for coordinating the activities, social services, and parent workshops that the mayor is hoping will help set the schools on a different path.

That’s a tall order. But if anyone seems up to the task, it’s Guevara, who taught elementary school for five years before working with an advocacy group dedicated to creating service-rich schools that partner with parents.

“I truly, 100 percent believe in community schools,” she said.

Chalkbeat, which produced this story, stopped by M.S. 50 recently to see how the job really worked. Here are highlights from Guevara’s day.

Guevara works with a student during an art class. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

11:20 a.m.—Troubleshooting

Guevara’s role requires quickly switching from nurse to counselor to administrator. When she walked into a bilingual class, where the children were eating a lunch of chicken and rice, she found a boy who had hurt his ankle. In fluent Spanish, she told him to get some ice and elevate it. Then she read a letter a girl had received from the health department saying she was missing a mandatory physical exam, though the girl said she’d already had it. Guevara promised to investigate.

Next, she dropped by a peer-mediation class that she started at the school this year. She listened in as the students, munching on pizza, discussed the need to stay neutral when settling disputes between classmates. Then Guevara, whose iPhone is always on hand, took a snapshot of the attendance list: A few students were missing. “My day-to-day is ensuring that the vision we’ve laid out is going,” she explained. “And also troubleshooting when there’s something that’s not going right with the plan.”

Later, when she stepped into the crowded hallway as students returned from lunch, she hugged a girl, told a boy to spit out his gum, then pulled aside a student who had skipped the peer-mediation class. Without scolding, Guevara told her how important it is to show up for class, then sent her on her way. “Alright kids,” Guevara said, speed-walking to her next appointment, “get back to class.”

Guevara leads an attendance meeting. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

12:40 p.m.—Partnerships and pressure

Guevara and Benjamin Honoroff—the principal brought in this year to spearhead the school’s turnaround—sat down in a science room with two representatives from El Puente, a 34-year-old community organization headquartered in a former church around the corner from the school. At the heart of each of the city’s new community schools is a marriage between the school and a nonprofit.

One of the El Puente’s main initiatives is to send artists to work with classroom teachers to help students produce a creative project, like a play, that combines academic content with the arts. At the meeting, Guervara, who was selected to run El Puente’s operations at M.S. 50, recounted a recent conversation with a boy who is struggling academically but had shined in his role as Hades in a play last year about Greek mythology. “I love doing that,” she recalled the boy saying.

But the group acknowledged that the program was struggling to stay on course as some classroom teachers focused their energy on other work. An official review of the school, and state exams, were both around the corner. The school’s results are sure to be scrutinized for signs of progress—or backsliding.

“There’s a bunch of pressure on the teachers coming up,” Honoroff said.

“I get it,” said Frances Lucerna, El Puente’s executive director. “There’s so much that’s at stake right now.”

Principal Benjamin Honoroff at an attendance-team meeting. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

1:40 p.m.—The war room

Guevara perched on the edge of a desk in the computer lab, her attendance team assembled around her. It was the school’s equivalent of a war room, and the battle was getting kids to show up to class—one of the central goals of the city’s community-school program. The idea is that no amount of instruction will get struggling students caught up if they don’t attend class.

Guevara asked for an update from Tapia, the parent and mentor. He described a “chill room” he’d set up, complete with posters of Beyoncé and Malcolm X, where students could hang out with their mentors during lunch. Guevara read through a list of the most frequently absent students, asking each team member to choose a few to keep close tabs on.

Next, they went over the results of a survey of 15 students whose attendance had improved dramatically this year. Last year, nine students cited illness and 11 mentioned “appointments.” “Part of what this triggers for me is the health aspect of community schools,” Guevara told the group, saying the responses showed the need for a school-based health clinic.

Honoroff, who’d sat in the back of the room as Guevara led the meeting, found the results encouraging. If the appointments included parents taking their children with them to an immigration lawyer, he suggested, perhaps the school could offer free legal clinics.

3:02 p.m.—Jumping jacks and fist bumps

The school day lasts an extra hour this year at the 94 struggling schools, part of the mayor’s plan to turn them around. But at M.S. 50, students weren’t complaining. That’s probably because, in addition to receiving help with math or reading, they get to play soccer, learn to crochet, practice debating, try jazz dancing, or record podcasts, among other options.

Usually Guevara moves from room to room. But an art teacher was absent, so Guevara oversaw her mural-making class. The task that day was for students to sketch the signatures they would use to sign the mural, which will be painted in a third-floor hallway. At the end of the period, Guevara had the students unwind by doing jumping jacks, squats, and running in place.

After that, Guevara headed upstairs to meet with Carolina Hidalgo, the bilingual teacher. The two are experimenting with an alternative to parent-teacher conferences called “academic parent-teacher teams,” which are different from typical report-card meetings in that it has parents come into the school for three workshops throughout the year, where the teacher explains the skills that students must learn and gives parents tips for helping. It’s designed in particular for parents with limited formal educations and those still learning English, who want to be involved in their children’s learning, but don’t know how. “It’s like you’re building your team,” Guevara explained. “Who’s going to be the support structure for the student in all their learning spaces?”

After the pair finished looking at student writing samples, Guevara stopped by Honoroff’s room to say goodbye before the break. They went over some last-minute business, then bumped fists.

“Get some rest,” she said.


This post appears courtesy of ChalkBeat New York.

The Power Struggle Over Transgender Students

Last year, states across the country considered 17 bills that would’ve regulated transgender people’s use of sex-segregated spaces such as bathrooms. None of them passed. But the reality is looking a lot different this year: Twenty-nine such bills, many of them school-specific, are making their way through state legislatures so far, according to an analysis by the Human Rights Campaign. And they include one out of South Dakota that is very close to becoming law.

That bill, which was passed just last week by the state’s Senate and as of Wednesday was awaiting approval by Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard, would prohibit transgender students in public schools from using bathrooms and locker rooms that don’t match with their biological sex; if requested, schools would have to provide “reasonable” accommodations for transgender students, such as single-occupancy or unisex restrooms. The legislation is important because it would set a precedent—South Dakota would be the first state to enact such a law—and because many of the bills under consideration elsewhere are, not coincidentally, almost identical. It also shows how prickly things get when the federal government and local jurisdictions vie for control over what happens at the nation’s public schools.

As I reported last year, K-12 schools are becoming ground zero for clashes over LGBT rights. On the one side are those who fear that allowing transgender children to use facilities based on their gender identity—allowing a student who was born a boy but identifies as a girl, for example—violates other students’ privacy rights and threatens their safety. On the other are those who say such rules, even when they prescribe special accommodations, make transgender students vulnerable to harassment and can pose logistical challenges that undermine their academic performance and overall campus experience. Student surveys conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) show that rules barring transgender students from using the facilities of their choice often end up discouraging the students from using them altogether; some of them end up skipping school. GLSEN has concluded that “policies and practices that enforce gender segregation” promote a sense of hostility on campus.

model policy in December 2014 that was distributed to school districts nationwide and looks much like the prospective South Dakota law, including its emphasis on providing separate facilities for “students struggling with their sexual identity.”

The K-12 Binary


The pushback against the South Dakota bill is especially strong because of the national impact it could have in setting a precedent. Missouri and Tennessee are among the states considering similar proposals—and they both have the demographic makeup and political will needed to see them become law. Pointing to the “psychological burden” that such rules impose on trans children, Nathan Smith, the public-policy director at GLSEN, said he worried it “will open the door for other states to actually bring these up and consider these bills as opposed to just tabling them. We’re concerned that South Dakota will be leading the way for a wave of discrimination across the country.”

The one thing opponents and proponents do seem to agree on is that any state that does end up adopting such a law is going to face resistance from the feds. The Obama administration interprets such policies to be in violation of Title IX and has already threatened to cut funding from schools and districts with similar regulations. Illinois’s Township High School District 211, for example, almost found itself in such a predicament after a school denied a transgender student access to the girls’ locker room; the district later reversed its policy, giving the student access to the facility of her choice, after reaching an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education.

provide about 44 percent of K-12 funding, while the federal government accounts for about 12 percent of it. Although the South Dakota law in particular wouldn’t come with financial penalties for schools that fail to comply with it, some say they would pay the price with the inevitable legal costs. “The liability under this bill falls on the school,” Smith said. As Politico has suggested, South Dakota and other states that follow in its footsteps could also face “lawsuits from multiple directions.”   

White House officials couldn’t say whether President Obama had looked carefully at the South Dakota bill—nor how the law, if passed, would fare given the administration’s interpretation of Title IX. The Education Department doesn’t comment on specific circumstances such as this proposal without first conducting an investigation. A spokeswoman for the White House did, however, point to several recent resolutions between the department’s civil-rights office and school districts on matters related to transgender students, including the case involving the Illinois district; all of the resolutions were in favor of the students. In a press briefing last week, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said that “the kind of values that this administration has championed have been values that have been dedicated to inclusiveness and non-discrimination, and even respect for human beings.” Many elements of the legislation, he added, “seem to come into sharp conflict with those basic American values.”

How Low-Income Students Are Fitting In at Elite Colleges

In recent years, college campuses have been rocked by black students protesting racial bigotry, and women’s groups denouncing sexual harassment. But in the age of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s class-based politics, we’re beginning to see something new: the rise of low-income and working-class students protesting longstanding inequalities on campus that in the previous decades were mostly ignored.

The new movement took center stage this past weekend as the Harvard College First-Generation Student Union hosted a conference of 350 students and administrators, mostly from Ivy League institutions, that called for boosting the presence of disadvantaged students on elite campuses and reducing their alienation.

Ana Barros, a low-income senior at Harvard, said when she first arrived as a freshman she felt marginalized and out of place in a sea of wealth. As I noted in a speech at the conference, students from the richest quarter of the population outnumber those from the poorest quarter by almost 25 to one at the nation’s most competitive colleges and universities.

While there has been a lot of talk in the last decade about increasing socioeconomic diversity at selective colleges, the numbers have remained flat despite growing levels of economic disadvantage among the nation’s student population.

In a recent report for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation called True Merit, my coauthor Jennifer Giancola and I note that the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen receiving Pell Grants at noncompetitive colleges rose from 42 percent to 51 percent between 2000 and 2013. At the most highly competitive colleges, however, the proportion receiving Pell Grants barely budged during that time period, moving from 16 percent to just 17 percent. (Nationally, more than 40 percent of college students receive Pell grants).

The lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population accounts for just 3 percent of the student body at the most competitive colleges. The scarcity of low-income students, according to the UCLA law professor Richard Sander, rivals the representation of minority students in the pre-civil rights era.

At the Harvard-hosted conference, known as 1vyG, minority students and alumni at elite universities highlighted their initial surprise in learning that even the black and Latino students on campus often came from prominent families with highly educated parents. One study of selective colleges found that 86 percent of African Americans at elite colleges are middle or upper class.

Of course, the issue of class inequality at selective colleges has been around a long time. In a 1995 article in Harvard Magazine, entitled “Blue Collar, Crimson Blazer,” M. Elaine Mar recounted feeling ashamed that among such a privileged group of students, her parents lacked a college degree. Even among the other financial-aid recipients who needed to make money and participated in “dorm crew” scrubbing the toilets of classmates, Mar’s family earned less.

In a 2006 article, John A. La Rue, another low-income Harvard student who participated in dorm crew, recalled the awkwardness of coming to clean a student’s bathroom and finding a classmate from a small seminar. “It’s a lot more comfortable when I knock and no one’s home,” he said.

In the past, organizing students around low-income status has been tricky. “How can we celebrate a status we seek to lift students from?” asked Jeremy Wright, the assistant director of the University of Chicago’s Center for College Student Success, at the conference.

Hence the new effort to organize around “first-generation college status.” Barros told me that organizing around poverty makes some people uncomfortable, but that celebrating advancement—being the first in one’s family to attend college—has much broader acceptance. Whereas poverty is an oppressed state from which people wish to escape, overcoming economic obstacles to attend an elite college is a remarkable accomplishment, for which individuals rightly can take pride for the rest of their lives.

Moreover, first-generation status stakes a broader tent than limiting concerns to students who come from impoverished homes. Two-thirds of American adults lack a college degree, so the offspring of those adults constitute a considerably larger segment of the American population than the offspring of the poor.

First-generation students face extra obstacles and struggle to graduate nationally. After six years, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate. The figure is better (25 percent) for first-generation students who are not low-income, but this graduation rate is still less than half of the level for students who are not low-income and not first-generation (54 percent).

Of course, a gathering of first-generation college students at Ivy League institutions necessarily involves a somewhat uncomfortable mix of egalitarianism and elitism. As the University of Wisconsin sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab reminded participants, for students at community colleges, the issue is not what to do when the dining halls close for spring break, but rather, how to build food pantries for commuting students who are hungry all year long.

But the issue of making elite campuses welcoming to low-income and first-generation students matters, too. Research finds that roughly half of government and half of corporate leaders are educated at just 12 leading universities. Society is better off if some of those future leaders know what it is like to struggle economically.

Organizing around first-generation status may gain new salience in the months ahead. Sometime before the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to rule in a challenge to racial preferences in admissions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas II. Supporters of affirmative action are pessimistic about their prospects. At oral arguments in December, it appeared that the justices were lining up 5-3 against Texas’s use of race in admissions. (Justice Elena Kagan is recused.) With the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the vote is still likely to be 4-3 against UT Austin.

The Future of Affirmative Action


Such a decision would be seen by many liberals as a major defeat, but it would likely spur universities to create new forms of affirmative action that look at economic disadvantage, including first-generation status. States where racial affirmative action has been banned at public universities— from the University of Washington to the University of Florida—have almost universally adopted alternative programs based on socioeconomic factors such as parental education and income. The type of students I saw at the 1vyG conference—a beautiful mix of black, Latino, Asian, and white pupils of working-class backgrounds—could become much more prevalent on elite campuses.

New class-based affirmative action programs could scramble current political coalitions. Politicians such as Donald Trump have perfected the art of diverting white working-class voters with hateful messages about Mexicans and Muslims. But other appeals can be made to this set of Americans. The civil-rights strategist Bayard Rustin noted that lower-middle-class whites are neither liberal nor conservative: they are both. And how issues are framed can determine how they vote. Rustin and his colleagues, A. Philip Randolph and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of a multiracial class-based coalition of Americans. That’s precisely what I saw in the student’s faces last weekend.

Moreover, these young people were proud of where they had come from and the hurdles they had surmounted. Ana Barros said, through tears, that she had entered Harvard a few years earlier with feelings of shame and isolation given how different she was from most of her classmates. Now, surrounded by hundreds of working-class students from elite colleges, she said it was time to claim first-generation status as “a badge we can proudly wear.” She concluded, to a standing ovation, “Thank you for giving me a community.”

How Can Schools Adapt to Gentrification?

Come September, Satellite West Middle School, a small, troubled school in New York City, will have moved from its shared brick building in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn, into a sparkling glass condominium building at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nestled in the heart of the chic Dumbo neighborhood, the redesigned school will focus on science and art, enlist local tech workers as mentors, and go by a new name, The Dock Street School for STEAM Studies. The admissions process will also change: Instead of using a lottery, the school will begin handpicking its students.

This transformation is one of New York City’s answers to the vexing riddle of how to convince middle-class families in gentrifying areas to send their children to local schools with less-than-stellar reputations. The potential rewards are high, as the influx of middle-class students and funding could help revitalize the district, keep newcomers from decamping to private schools or moving, and create newly diverse classrooms, which research shows is beneficial to students.

Chalkbeat


But the move raises some prickly questions: Must a struggling school become selective before middle-class families will give it a chance? And is the cost of wooing those families excluding others?

An ever-growing number of middle-class families are choosing to settle in this particular Brooklyn district, which stretches from the rapidly redeveloping neighborhoods of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Fort Greene to solidly upper-class Dumbo and Brooklyn Heights. And while many are choosing to send their children to increasingly popular local elementary schools, most of the district’s dozen middle schools have not caught on in the same way. Most serve primarily low-income students of color and earn test scores far below the city average.

Satellite West epitomizes the challenges facing these schools: dwindling enrollment, low test scores (though they are comparable to those at other schools with many high-needs students), and a spot on the state’s list of most dangerous schools. Nearly 90 percent of its students come from low-income families, and not one is white.

Because families can apply to any middle school in the swiftly gentrifying Brooklyn district where Satellite West is located, the city can’t just redraw zone lines to nudge more families into certain middle schools. Instead, the schools must entice parents to apply—a vital task for a school like Satellite West, which currently serves just 74 students, and needs more applicants to stay afloat.

After hosting forums and focus groups to ask families exactly what they are looking for in a middle school, the Brooklyn district modeled the new school according to their tastes—a community-driven redesign process that could provide a blueprint for other similarly floundering middle schools. “This is a unique, beautiful way to design a school,” the Satellite West Principal Melissa Vaughan told parents at a recent presentation.

That makes the Dock Street School a window into what some middle-class families seek—in this case, a trendy theme, modern facilities, and a progressive bent. But it also reveals the types of students they want their children surrounded by. It was during the planning process that many parents said they wanted the new middle school to screen its applicants. The redesign team consented. While students who apply to Satellite West now are randomly selected, Dock Street will likely pick its students based on several criteria, including test scores, grades, attendance records, and their performance on a group project, aiming to assess the students “holistically,” according to the district superintendent.

“If I stick around and take a leap of faith on a middle school [in my district] that doesn’t have great test scores, I at the very least want to make sure there’s a peer group for my kid,” said Maggie Spillane, a parent and redesign-team member.

But the new admissions policy, while appealing to middle-class families, could simultaneously shut out other families.

an analysis of state data by Rob Underwood, a member of the district’s community-education council.

The model for Dock Street is the Salk School of Science, a prestigious school in Manhattan’s Gramercy neighborhood. Salk screens applicants based on their test scores, grades, writing samples, and a science exercise, among other factors.

Cynthia McKnight, an elementary-school parent and member of the redesign team, said her older son attended Salk. While she loved the first-class education he received there, she said it came at the expense of diversity: He was the only black boy in his class.

Last year, 85 percent of Salk students were white or Asian and only 10 percent received subsidized lunch, a measure of poverty. In the district where Salk students must live, 72 percent of students are white or Asian and 42 percent receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

While Dock Street plans to strive for greater diversity, McKnight said, many parents also made clear that they would not consider the school if it continued to admit any student who applied.

“A lot of parents wouldn’t send their children here if they didn’t have a screen,” she said.

Other parents said the desire for a selective school reflects the scarcity of local options for high-performing students. In addition, it could help assuage concerns that Dock Street is just Satellite West rebranded—especially since the redesigned school would keep the same principal and teachers.

Barbara Freeman, the district superintendent, and some members of the redesign team insisted that Dock Street can screen applicants and still enroll a diverse mix of students. And the lessons of the redesign could also benefit the district’s other middle schools, she added, which are struggling to capitalize on the influx of new families.

“As the district continues to go forward with gentrification and the changes, how are we equipped to answer these big questions?” she said.

For now, it appears that some parents are still unaware of Satellite West’s pending transformation into a selective school. Faraji Hannah-Jones, a parent at the school that Satellite West currently shares a building with, said he was surprised to learn about the change, which he called a “recipe for disaster.” He said that in attempting to draw in more middle-class families, the policy risked excluding the neediest ones.

“If you’re going to have something like this that’s supposed to be special,” he said about the revamped school, “it should benefit the kids who need it most.”


This post appears courtesy of ChalkBeat New York.

Against the Sticker Chart

After working with thousands of families over my years as a family psychologist, I’ve found that one of the most common predicaments parents face is how to get kids to do what they’re asked. And one of the most common questions parents ask is about tools they can use to help them achieve this goal.

One such tool is the sticker chart, a type of behavior-modification system in which children receive stickers in exchange for desired behaviors like brushing their teeth, cleaning their room, or doing their homework. Kids can later “spend” their accrued stickers on prizes, outings, and treats.

Though data on how widely sticker charts are used (and when and why they became so popular) is difficult to find, anecdotal evidence suggests that these charts have become fairly commonplace in American parenting. Google searches for “sticker chart,” “chore chart,” and “reward chart” collectively return more than 1 million results. Amazon has more than 1,300 combined product results for the same searches. Reddit, too, is teeming with forums for parents asking each other about the merits of the charts and discussing specific strategies.

It’s easy to see how busy parents would be drawn to sticker charts’ ability to produce quick results. With the right incentives and structure, the system can be an effective way to get kids in the habit of brushing their teeth, for example, or unpacking their school bags. Proponents of sticker charts say that these types of reward systems help prevent power struggles and reduce parents’ need to nag, making the routines of everyday family life easier.

In many ways, they do. The problem with sticker charts and similar reward systems is not that they don’t work. Rather, they can work too well, creating significant negative and unintended long-term consequences for both the kids and their families. Sticker charts are powerful psychological tools, and they can go beyond affecting children’s motivation to influence their mindset and even affect their relationship with parents.

But advocates of sticker charts often neglect to mention their potential hazards, leaving parents surprised when the method backfires. Not surprisingly, I frequently hear complaints from parents about sticker charts gone awry. One mother who was initially pleased with the results of her sticker-chart system said that when she asked her 8-year old son to stop what he was doing and help his younger brother clean up a spill, he responded: “What will you give me?”

Another couple in one of my parenting classes also struggled when their reward system stopped working. “We told our daughter that she could earn extra points toward her goal of getting a new phone if she would help us clean the kitchen after dinner, but she just said, ‘No, thanks.’ Now what?”

Many of these parents who began a reward system with the worthy goal of making family routines easier became so pleased with the outcome that they kept adding more items to the sticker chart. Children reluctant to help with laundry or share their toys? Give them a sticker for it.

I like to call this phenomenon, in which reward systems become pervasive in family life, a “reward economy.” In reward economies, kids learn to trade desirable behavior for a reward. Sometimes the reward comes directly, in the form of toys, ice cream, or books; sometimes its value is stored, like currency, in stickers or other objects that can be exchanged at a later date. Whatever the system, reward economies promote a transactional model for good behavior: Children come to expect a reward for good behavior and are hesitant to “give it away for free,” like the 8-year-old boy who wanted a reward for helping his brother.

Some of the hazards of sticker charts include the much-discussed risk of undermining kids’ intrinsic motivation, or the need to offer more and better rewards as the original ones lose their appeal. But perhaps more distressingly, reward economies also affect how children think about relationships.

In some cases, children are offered rewards not only for mundane tasks like tooth-brushing, but also for what social scientists call pro-social behavior: things like helping, cooperating, and sharing. Studies have shown that offering children tangible rewards in exchange for caring behavior may diminish future helpful behavior and can erode children’s innate tendency to help others.

Insights from behavioral economics help explain this effect. From that perspective, the problematic attitude of children raised in a reward economy—“What’s in it for me?”—is a predictable response to the collision of social norms (the invisible forces that shape how humans act) with market norms (a system of payments, debts, contracts, and customers).

In experiments studying the effects of these two norms, the behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely has found that when the two come together in the same situation, market norms tend to overpower social norms, shifting the focus from relationships to commerce.

In one real-life example from his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Ariely describes the experience of a daycare business trying to reduce the number of parents who arrived late to pick up their children. The center decided to implement a fine to penalize parents who came late. After the fine was instituted, however, the daycare noticed that there was actually an increase in the number of parents who were late. Why? It had inadvertently eclipsed social norms by introducing the fine, which belongs to the world of market norms. Before, parents had tried not to be late because they felt badly about inconveniencing the daycare staff (a social norm); now, being late was governed by a market norm, meaning they could just pay the fine with a clear conscience. The daycare had put a price on lateness, and many parents were willing to pay it.

Similarly, when parents compensate children for good behavior, they are introducing market norms into family life, a setting in which social norms traditionally reign. When I spoke with Ariely about the application of his research to reward systems like sticker charts, he advised parents to consider the long-term implications: “[Reward systems] provide a short-term satisfactory solution, but at what cost?” he said. “What happens if [kids] think of [their] existence in the family as a job?”

Ariely offered a personal example about how a transactional mindset can diminish goodwill. He once worked at a university that used a point system to ensure that faculty members met their teaching requirements. Once he learned the formula for receiving points, Ariely figured out how to maximize it, effectively doing as little as possible to get the most points. “I managed to get 112 points by teaching just one class a year. I had one class with lots of students and lots of [teaching assistants],” he said. “So I just optimized [the formula].”

In contrast, the university at which he now works simply expects that everyone pitches in. “This has meant that I actually teach more,” he added. “Every year I volunteer to teach a class for the undergrads, but it’s not part of my official contract. The point system [at the other university] basically eliminated any goodwill.”

Parents might see little difference between giving their children a sticker for brushing their teeth and giving them one for helping a younger sibling. However, given the negative effect of rewards on pro-social behavior, and the harmful influence of market norms on relationships, a troubling question arises: What is the impact on families when parents choose the short-term expediency of using rewards to promote good behavior?

“If you created a relationship [with your kids] that is very transactional, what do you expect when everyone gets older?” Ariely said. “I’m not saying that giving kids a sticker is going to make them send their parents to assisted living, but if you think about the idea, it’s a step in that direction.”

What America Leaves When It Leaves Afghanistan

This month, the outgoing commander of America’s military effort in Afghanistan told Congress that the country the United States invaded more than 14 years ago was at “an inflection point.” The Taliban reportedly holds more territory than at any time since 2001, and civilian casualties are at record levels. Ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable; some fear that peace talks with the Taliban could open a place in the government for an organization that waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.

For all of these reasons, even as U.S. forces continue to depart the country, the war in Afghanistan isn’t over yet, and by many measures it’s not going well.

Forgetting Afghanistan


But there are stories of hope, if you know where to look. One of the brightest is so small it’s invisible to many; to find it, you have to drive for the better part of an hour along rutted roads from the center of Kabul, to a Hazara slum in a desert on the city’s outskirts. It’s just a school. But it is, in many ways, exactly what the Americans and their Afghan allies have been fighting for more than a decade to protect. And it’s exactly what Afghanistan stands to lose now.

* * *

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, with a parade of foreign armies behind it, a group of refugees was waiting to take advantage. They were Afghans, though at the time of the invasion they were not in Afghanistan, not yet. They were Hazaras, and they were next door in Pakistan, where thousands of members of their ethnic group had fled during more than a century of persecution in their home country, committed most recently by the Taliban regime that America was about to overthrow.

Because they were minorities in a country dominated by other ethnic groups, because of their Shia beliefs in a country dominated by Sunnis, and because of the pervasive origin myth that has them descending from Mongol invaders of the 13th century, the Hazaras occupied the bottom rungs of society even before the Taliban swept to power. In the late 19th century, the country’s ruler Abdur Rahman—known as “the Iron Amir” for his ruthlessness—launched a war against Hazaras and oversaw their enslavement. A militia the Americans later supported took part in one of the worst crimes of Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s, massacring as many as 2,500 Hazaras and injuring and raping thousands more in 1993. Then the civil war ended with the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, and things only got worse for Hazaras. One governor reportedly issued a fatwa saying, “Hazaras are not Muslim. Killing them is not a sin,” and Taliban fighters evidently took those guidelines to heart. More massacres followed. The Hazaras have been denied access to power, property, or even education in their own country.

stopped two buses in the southern province of Zabul, separated out the Hazaras, and took them hostage; similar kidnappings targeted Hazaras throughout the year. Last July, Hazaras manning a security checkpoint west of the capital were overrun by Taliban fighters; 30 were killed, and their bodies mutilated. Late last year seven Hazaras civilians, including a young girl, were beheaded with razor wire. There are many other examples.

All of them make it hard for a student to focus on her studies. Hazaras like Aziz cooperated with the Americans in exchange for protection; that makes them look like traitors to insurgents. And it leaves them exposed as that protection disappears.

Yet for now, people like Aziz are trying to hold up their end of the bargain. The Americans, who may or may not be considering another five years of small-scale counterterrorism operations in the country, aren’t offering enough to hold up theirs.


This article has been adapted from Jeffrey E. Stern’s new book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War.

When Low-Income Parents Go Back to School

Leon Sykes has eight children at home, works two jobs, and drives for Uber and Lyft on the side. Yet the 34-year-old father has found time to take classes Monday through Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. to earn his high-school credentials at Academy of Hope, an adult public charter school in Washington, D.C. Sykes is about two years into the program. His wife usually picks up their children, ages 5 to 15, from after-school activities, but he still can’t always make it to class. “Some days, you just have to pick and choose,” he says.

About one in 10 low-income parents participate in education and training courses, according to a 2014 report by the Urban Institute. About half of those parents work while enrolled, creating a need for childcare. The Department of Labor’s Strengthening Working Families Initiative has set aside $25 million to fund partnerships between workforce and childcare organizations to help parents who want to advance their education. For parents who did not graduate from high school, earning a GED can have financial benefits. Adults who hold a GED certificate end up with higher monthly earnings than those who never finished high school.

Working parents often take classes in the evenings but childcare centers generally close before 6 p.m., leaving parents to find informal options, such as asking a family member to come over or dropping a child off with a neighbor. At Academy of Hope, which has two campuses serving a total of about 330 students, 42 percent say they have at least one dependent. Parents can participate in the GED-preparation program or in the college-transition program, where students can earn four college credits that transfer to a local community college. Parents who take classes here can qualify for a voucher for childcare through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program, but there are more children than slots. And while the school considered offering childcare, it has decided that it would be too complex and costly.

The Academy of Hope CEO Lecester Johnson says that there are plenty of reasons a student might have to miss class: Many students have multiple jobs, for instance, and schedule changes can prevent them from showing up. Being a parent, however, can make things even more difficult. “If their babysitting or childcare falls apart, there isn’t usually a backup, and that’s the case for most folks,” Johnson says. At this school, female students who are also parents are especially affected by the lack of childcare, according to Richmond Onokpite, a lead science and technology teacher. Nationally, of the 1.8 million low-income parents who participate in education and training, more than half are single moms.

In a science class at Academy of Hope sits Domonique Gillis, a 27-year-old single mother of four. This is her favorite subject. Gillis grew up in West Virginia, where she did well in high school. But her junior year she got into a fight, which resulted in her being moved to an alternative school. She knew that the alternative school was for “bad kids,” and so she stopped listening in class and completing her school work. “I wasn’t bad until I went there and I adapted to the environment to fit in,” she says. “And then I stopped going to school.”

poor children whose parents have at least a GED or high-school diploma are more likely to complete high school. Johnson said she notices that a lot of parents start enrolling at Academy of Hope when their kids reach fourth grade, after recognizing that they need to pursue their education to help their children with homework. Parents start attending school functions, too, as their positive adult education experience starts replacing frequently negative childhood ones.

At Academy of Hope, about a quarter of students set a goal to become more involved in their children’s schooling; about 70 percent achieve it. “[They] look at the child’s homework and they can help them out, rather than just looking at the homework and having no idea what’s going on,” Onokpite says.

Gillis said that her eldest son has provided a lot of encouragement. She says if she doesn’t earn her high-school credentials, her children won’t feel they have to, either. “My son said, ‘Mom, if you want a high-school diploma from me, you have to get your GED. If you don’t get your GED, I can’t promise you a high-school diploma.’ So that made me want to go to school more to get my GED because I owe it to my kids.”