We've just taken a good first step with smart, low-income students

We investigated, the legislature responded. #ReadLocal

A News & Observer / Charlotte Observer investigation found that low-income students with high test scores were often missing out on advanced classes. Lawmakers responded by approving a bill to address the problem. #ReadLocal at nando.com/readlocal.
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A News & Observer / Charlotte Observer investigation found that low-income students with high test scores were often missing out on advanced classes. Lawmakers responded by approving a bill to address the problem. #ReadLocal at nando.com/readlocal.

When Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 986, which requires students who earned the highest possible score on end-of-course math exams to be placed in advanced math classes the following school year, I thought about one particular student.

She barely said a word in my standard-level English class three years ago, didn’t always turn in her assignments and occasionally skipped class. By October she was at risk of failing, so I challenged her to do more. Then, a few weeks later, she turned in a writing assignment that blew my mind.

She wrote about the hardships her family has endured — her father’s unemployment, unstable housing and moving around a lot as a child — and the pressure she feels to do well in school to improve their situation. Beautifully written and insightful, her paper made me rethink my approach. Her other teachers told me she seemed bored, so I asked her to revise the story, translate it into Spanish and send it to the school paper, where it was published in both languages a few weeks later. And I never underestimated her again.

The following school year she joined the school newspaper staff and took advanced math and science classes. Her attendance improved, and she can better manage the pressure to succeed now. It took a full year, but with support from her parents, counselor and mentor, my school identified her talent and provided the opportunities she deserves.

But the big-picture barriers prohibiting talented but poor students like her from flourishing in school still exist, and the poverty her family battles didn’t go away when her classes changed. Honors classes brought with them books to acquire and read over the summer, field trip fees to pay, transportation to provide for before and after-school activities and personal electronic devices to use when completing projects and homework. These opportunities added expenses to an already tight family budget.

I know my colleagues won’t let my student go without the resources she needs to be successful in her advanced classes. But it’s a stark reminder that House Bill 986 is a beginning, not an end, when it comes to supporting high performing, low-income students.

The bill formalizes access to the advanced math classes that all students deserve and acknowledges the troubling data uncovered by reporters Joseph Neff, Ann Doss Helms and David Raynor in the Counted Out series one year ago. But mandating course placement does nothing to address the systemic barriers preventing low-income students from excelling. Nor does it act on any of the authors’ recommendations to hire more counselors and teachers of color, fill gifted programs with high achievers, pay for extra opportunities when parents can’t and make better use of student data.

Fixing this problem requires funding. Placing all high-performing students in advanced classes improves equity. But those students also need extra staff and resources, especially when their own families cannot provide them, to maintain that equity.

The greatest lesson I’ve learned from a decade in the classroom is that poverty is expensive. Community and thought leaders from around the state recently reiterated the need for more funding to close the achievement gap in the North Carolina Influencer Series, but state and federal governments knew this long before I started teaching. For example, throughout the early 20th century many low-income students did not have the food they needed to thrive at school. In 1946 President Harry Truman signed National School Lunch Act, which required schools to provide lunch for every student and provided financial subsidies to states and local districts to cover costs. The policy improved equity, but the money made it work.

Delivering the sound basic education described in our state constitution to low-income students requires more time, effort and resources than their affluent counterparts. But the potential return on that investment — an authentic increase in student achievement —would more than make up for it. I commend the General Assembly for listening and seeking a solution, but the work is far from finished.

Bryan Christopher teaches English and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham. He is also a Hope Street Teacher Voice Fellow and blogs about teaching and policy at bryan-christopher.com.