Editor’s note: With school going back in session, this is the second in a three-part series about challenges in low-income schools by Renée Swick-Ziller, an English teacher in northeast Denver. Swick-Ziller is a native of Pueblo and a proud alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado.
During the spring of my first year teaching middle school in neighborhood in northeastern Denver, our staff was required to canvas for enrollment. Wanting to represent the neighborhood we served, we knocked on doors to tell residents why our school would be a great choice. We talked about our unique traditions and the school’s achievements towards closing academic gaps with families of incoming sixth graders.
Like most of my colleagues, I did not live in the neighborhood I taught. At the age of 24, knocking on doors in a neighborhood not my own was uncomfortable, but also enlightening. I saw multiple families living in a single home, crowded fast food restaurants without a grocery store in sight, and at times I read from my Spanish script through closed screen doors hoping that I communicated clearly and warmly. I began to see that although we as educators work to improve our curriculum in hopes of closing gaps between students of poverty and privilege, that gap continues to be impacted by social determinants outside of the classroom.
That same year in Denver, I waited with students for buses to arrive during dismissal. I chatted with a 7th grader who had recently been caught stealing snacks from a classroom, was failing all of his classes, and could not stay awake during class. Teachers were racking their brains trying to apply interventions that were more effective. That afternoon he shared with me that he had recently been sleeping on a friend-of-an-aunt’s couch and food was scarce. His family was doubling-up with another. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one in 50 children do not have a regular place to live. These situations include doubled-up housing, shelters, and hotels. Research shows that half of children who are homeless are held back a grade. Additionally, 12.7 percent of U.S. households are also food insecure. This means that at some point during the year, families struggle to provide enough food for every member. These students are impacted by fatigue, and have problems with concentration and absenteeism. In my conversation by the school bus that day, I wondered if what would improve the grades of this student was not better lessons, but a stable house and food in the fridge.
During my most recent year teaching high school English in southwest Denver, a freshman student was noticeably struggling. He had little to no close friendships, was combatant with adults and had a failing GPA. My first reaction was that he needed more academic support. His grades seemed to reflect a learning gap, but something did not add-up. I investigated his reading scores. To my surprise, he was reading two levels above grade-level expectations. There was no apparent learning gap. His grades did not reflect his abilities. I pulled his reports and sat with him to problem solve. Initially, he did not respond well to my efforts. He shrugged his shoulders apathetically and avoided eye contact. Over the coming weeks he lingered in my class a little longer every day and talked about his family.
They were undocumented and struggling to pay immigration lawyers. He was bitter with fear of his parents’ potential deportation. School felt unimportant. Migrant students in Colorado met 9th grade academic reading expectations 27.1 percent lower than their peers in 2016. While these students face many barriers in school, one of those is stress. In the first 100 days of the Trump administration, immigration arrests rose 38 percent in comparison to the year prior increasing fear in our schools. Nervous families attended parent-teacher conferences and “Know Your Rights” meetings all in the same classroom. Much work is yet to be done in schools regarding cultural competency and English language development, but academic gaps are not always due to the quality of education. Sometimes, they are due to a lack of hope.
Our schools work tirelessly to provide the best education for every student. Teachers share food from home, knock on doors, refine lessojns, and call families to check-in. We do this because we know that students need more than a great reading class to be successful in life.
The efforts of educators is not enough. It is housing instability, food insecurity, and pathways to citizenship that influence the academic achievement gap between students of poverty and of privilege. All students deserve a fair shot at a stable and productive life, but that gap has yet to be closed.
-By Renée Swick-Ziller