Unlocking Opportunities

What The District Can Do To Better Support Low-Income Students

Poverty makes it hard for children to succeed in school. Low-income children are more likely than others to show up to school hungry, exposed to violence, stressed by family instability, or faced with severe health problems. 

That’s why efforts to close the still-large achievement gap in DC have to go beyond improving classroom instruction to also address the challenges that low-income children bring to school every day.

The good news is that services such as quality afterschool programs and mental health services can alleviate poverty’s impact – unlocking opportunities and allowing all students to reach their potential. These supports are a proven way to improve attendance, raise grades and test scores, and reduce discipline and behavior problems.

And schools are an ideal location to deliver services. Children are far more likely to use mental health services, for example, when they are located in a school than if the referral is to an outside professional. And staff that deliver services in schools —like social workers and nurses--can work directly with teachers to identify the services students need and can collaborate to address problem behaviors that get in the way of learning.

DC offers a number of programs that help low-income students, but there are still large gaps. The number of homeless students is rising, but federal funding is low and falling. Approximately 5,000 DC children don’t have access to needed mental health services. Less than one quarter of at-risk children have access to afterschool programs. And some school nurses, psychologists and social workers have caseloads well beyond industry standards.

The District has a unique opportunity to do more. This year, DC Public Schools and each charter school received an additional $2,000 for each “at-risk” student through the school funding formula. If used well, those new resources could go a long way toward helping low-income students succeed. 

SERVICES = Success

Here are some of the key ways that schools can unlock opportunities for all students in DC schools:

  • Improve Services for Students who are Homeless: Over 4,000 students in DC Public Schools are homeless – as many as one-quarter of the students in some schools. Yet the District gets just $35 in federal funds to meet the needs of each homeless student. Individual schools need additional support to address the transportation, counseling and other needs of homeless children. As family homelessness worsens, school leaders need to assess what they offer to identify gaps in services that create educational barriers for homeless children. And the District can run homelessness prevention programs through schools to help families with school-age children avoid the trauma and disruption of homelessness.
  • Expand School-Based Mental Health Services: Only one-third of DC schools are covered by the city’s school-based mental health program, and an estimated 5,000 children go without needed mental health services. Many schools need more social workers and psychologists to support large caseloads. And all schools can adopt practices used in some schools to reinforce positive behavior and make school staff sensitive to the needs of traumatized children.
  • Promote Access to Quality Afterschool and Summer Learning Programs: Access to enriching afterschool and summer activities is one of the biggest disparities between low-income and other children. Yet the District’s financial support of afterschool programs is modest and declining. Non-profits that operate programs in DC Public Schools get no funding from DCPS to cover their costs, limiting the kinds of programming they can do and the number of schools they can serve. The District should enhance the capacity of the organizations that provide quality programs to ensure that all low-income students have access to meaningful activities after school and in the summer, when low-income students lose ground. 
  • Scale-Up the Community Schools Model in DC: Community Schools turn public schools into hubs for students and the larger community by developing partnerships with community organizations and bringing services into the school, such as health care or adult literacy. There are currently six grantees (at 11 schools) operating Community School partnerships in the District, but the model should be expanded to all high-poverty schools. 
  • Expand Parent Engagement Efforts: There are promising efforts to engage parents and give them information to support their children’s learning at home, through parent-teacher home visits. But these practices are largely funded by a private organization and serve a small number of schools. The District should help more high-poverty schools participate in these effective parent engagement models. 
  • Improve Health and Nutrition Services for Students: School-Based Health Centers and school nurses are proven ways to help students to access primary care services. But only six high-schools have a health center, and many schools do not have a full-time nurse. Expanding health centers to high poverty middle schools and adding more nurses should be the next priorities. In addition, all schools offer free breakfast, but they do not all use the most innovative ways to make sure students eat them, such as grab-and-go breakfasts that students can take to class. 

Monitoring the New Funding

DCPS and each charter school received $2,000 in new funds for every low-income student this year. Now it is important to make sure those funds are spent as intended to improve outcomes for poor students. Both DCPS and public charter schools should be expected to report on how they use these resources, and ideally leaders and parents at individual schools should have a say in how the funds are used.

Many of the services that improve school success are not run by the schools at all. For example, the School Mental Health program in DC Public Schools and DC public charter schools is run and managed by the Department of Behavioral Health. It therefore is critical that someone coordinate the efforts of the multiple agencies that provide services through schools. A new senior position to bridge DC’s education and human services agencies could identify needs of low-income children across schools, assess what services are available, and plan for and address gaps in services.

The barriers poor children face are serious but not insurmountable. A concerted effort to make sure students get the help they need to be ready to learn is one of the keys to unlocking opportunities for DC low-income students. 

Reed is Deputy Director and Bhat is an education policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (www.dcfpi.org), which conducts research on tax and budget issues that affect low- and moderate-income DC residents. 

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