Stillwater News Press

Local News

July 7, 2011

Agra school administrators seek to better understand issues surrounding student poverty

AGRA, Okla. — When new teachers come to work at Agra High School, Principal Tyler Bridges tells them they may be the only stable adults their students see in any given day.

In a high-poverty district like Agra, he said, many students come from unstable homes, meaning the classroom is the only stable environment they know. So it’s all the more important for teachers to be able to develop relationships with those students, he said.

Bridges and Agra Superintendent Bradley Richards attended a training session in Santa Fe, N.M., last month that focused on building relationships with poor students. Bridges and Richards hope to implement the same training later this summer to help prepare teachers in the district to better understand issues surrounding poverty and to better equip them to build those relationships.

The training, called “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” was presented by Ruby Payne, who wrote a book by the same title. Payne, an educator, speaker and author, spoke during the session about hidden rules and mindsets of economic class, as well as strategies for understanding poverty and overcoming socioeconomic obstacles.

Richards said he and Bridges will implement the training during the district’s annual inservice program in August. The training is particularly helpful in districts with high poverty rates, Richards said. Agra falls into this category, he said — 87 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

Child poverty research appears to support that idea. Kids Count, an annual survey of child welfare statistics compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, estimated 23.5 percent of children in Lincoln County lived in poverty in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. By comparison, the foundation estimated 18.8 percent of children in neighboring Payne County lived in poverty in the same year.

“There is a lot of poverty here,” Richards said. “A lot of our kids have a limited number of resources, money only being one of those components.”

The training was funded by a $12,500 subgrant the district received from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education under program called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. The federally-funded program is designed to help prepare middle and high school students for college.

The subgrant goes to fund professional development for teachers. The GEAR UP program awarded nearly $450,000 in subgrant funding to school districts statewide this year.

All 2011 grant recipients used the funding to participate in the Ruby Payne training. Each recipient also chooses from a list of optional sessions. Representatives from Agra will also participate in seminars involving grant writing and math education.

In a release, Oklahoma Chancellor of Higher Education Glen D. Johnson said the subgrants help students by equipping their teachers to better prepare them for college.

“The federal dollars we distribute through the GEAR UP College Access Subgrants give us the opportunity to provide training and materials for teachers as we work together to raise the educational expectations of our students and increase their success in college,” Johnson said.

Much of the training focused on how to relate to children from poor families, Richards said. One of the biggest ideas he took from the session, he said, was that those children’s family situations often mean not only a lack of money, but complete disenfranchisement. As a result, he said, those students often see problems that are the result of poverty, but may not be directly related to money.

“It’s not just a lack of money, but a lack of resources,” he said.

For example, Richards said, students who come from poor families may be more likely to feel attacked during their interactions with other students. Much of the time, he said, those students’ immediate response is to fight back.

The training session included practical ideas about how to deal with classroom situations, Richards said. While those situations don’t always include poor students, he said, the skills are helpful. For example, if a student comes into the classroom angry or combative, he said, having the student simply drink a glass of water and sit for a while can help him or her calm down.

Bridges said one of the major components of the training he hopes to implement at Agra High School is working with poor students to get them to look toward the future. Teenagers in general have a difficult time planning for the future, he said, but research shows that’s especially true among poor students, who often have been raised in an environment where looking to the future isn’t encouraged.

“They’re not raised that way,” he said. “They don’t think that way.”

The training session included a curriculum designed to provide a way for teachers to work with individual students, and Bridges said he hopes to implement that curriculum during semiweekly advisory periods. During those periods, he said, teachers would talk with students, especially those in poverty, about their hopes and plans for the future and how to approach them.

The benefit students would see from the individual attention is twofold, Bridges said. It could give them a chance to think about where they want to go in life and how to get there, and it would give the teachers an opportunity to forge relationships with students who may be in dire need of adult mentorship, he said.

That mentorship is a critical component of the district’s mission, Bridges said. Many of the students in the district come from unstable home environments, he said, meaning their teachers may be the only stable role model in their lives.

The training included a number of other components, he said, including intervention strategies teachers could use with students who are at risk of dropping out of school and dealing with students’ parents.

Much of the training came back to the relationship teachers have with their students, he said. One of the key elements, he said, is to create a positive relationship from the very beginning. For that relationship to flourish, he said, it’s critical for teachers to show respect for their students. That respect is apparent in the way teachers speak with students and the way they confront them, he said.

When students have a positive relationship with their teachers, he said, they’re more likely to do well in the classroom. Because of that, he said, the route to improved student achievement lies not only in effective instruction and classroom management, but also in a healthy teacher-student relationship.

“That is the most important thing,” he said. “We can have teachers that know math inside and out, top to bottom, but if they don’t develop relationships with students ... it doesn’t matter.”

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