Since I entered teaching, I’ve worked in what are classified as urban, “high-needs” schools. Lately I’ve been asking myself, what exactly does that mean?

The high-needs schools in which I’ve built my teaching practice serve student populations that receive universal free lunch from the government. This means that 100% of their families live (or at least report income) at the poverty line. I researched the federal guidelines for this designation, and found that for a single parent and one child, it is $14,570 per year. And for a household of 5 this means $25,790 annually.

In New York City, those figures make for staggeringly difficult conditions for raising a family. These numbers reflect “the struggle,” a concept that never really goes away. This is where students grow up exposed to or experiencing the various symptoms of poverty–poor or unstable housing, violence, crime, poor health and nutrition, depression–all of which are competing factors in a child’s ability to focus in school. I do believe strongly that any child can succeed academically given the right opportunity, but the stress level alone associated with many of these issues makes it much more difficult.

What confuses me at the moment is why there are so many schools that serve 100% children of the poor. It would be one thing if most of the city was poor, but that is not the case. It would be one thing if some districts were poor and others wealthy, but that is not the case either. Districts tend to be spread across several neighborhoods of varying economic levels. So why is it that one handful of schools is charged with educating children who struggle getting their basic needs met, and other schools serve mostly middle class children who mostly come to school well-provided for? Why do so many poor students in New York City find themselves in classes made up of exclusively other students facing similar economic situations? What message does that send?

In today’s education scene, key players seem comfortable looking in the windows of high-needs schools and questioning or making suggestions as to how they are funded, staffed, supported, and held accountable (all of which are valid points of discussion). But what about the frame itself for this picture? Aren’t we looking at the old ill of segregation and failing to confront it?

In New York City, students have to apply to schools, starting in elementary, and most schools screen their students. “Better” schools have good reputations, get “better” applicant pools, and can choose from the most prepared students (using academic, discipline and attendance records). Schools with poorer reputations end up with students that the better schools didn’t choose. It is not a coincidence that those students tend live at the poverty line and receive free lunch.

Great work happens inside high-need schools. Committed teachers, students and school leaders regularly transcend the expectations society has of them, putting the dream of educational opportunity for all into action. At the same time, in many such schools, we are overwhelmed by the level of need, both academically, socially and psychologically. There are many children who get “left behind”–not by hard-working teachers, guidance counselors and administrators doing their best every day–but by a system that is still separate and unequal. And no matter how much we test students and hold teachers and principals accountable for the results, we’re missing something if we don’t also deal with the segregation in our schools that perpetuates and even intensifies long-standing inequalities inside our nation.

[image credit: 2008/11/27/urban-vector/]

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