Though there were a few exceptions, there was a clear pattern in the school rankings published in the Sunday Eagle: The higher the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, the lower the test scores.
That doesn’t mean that lowerincome children can’t and don’t excel in school, or that schools with high poverty rates shouldn’t have high expectations. But the reality in Kansas and nationwide is that districts with a lot of poverty face bigger challenges to help students succeed.
Wichita is one of those districts.
Nearly three-quarters of Wichita’s students are classified as poor, and 24 of its schools have poverty levels of more than 90 percent. As a result, it wasn’t surprising that the average test scores of most Wichita schools were lower than those of suburban districts that, in some cases, have poverty levels of less than 15 percent.
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Lower-income students often don’t have the same educational resources as other students, such as home computers or college-educated parents. Some kids also don’t have stable home lives, which can make learning difficult. In addition, significant numbers of Wichita students come from homes where English isn’t spoken.
This doesn’t let the Wichita school district off the hook. Society depends on schools to help children overcome these challenges. And the fact that several Wichita public schools rank near the bottom of the state shows that the district must do better. Much better.
Wichita has strong programs and has shown that it can have top schools. For example, Bostic Traditional Magnet was the top-ranked elementary school in the three-county Wichita area.
Bostic is not comparable to most other Wichita schools — its poverty percentage is only 34.3 percent; it’s smaller than most Wichita schools; and its application process helps ensure that more of its students and parents are committed, while most other schools have to accept all comers. Still, Bostic’s high expectations and emphasis on parental involvement should be modeled at every school.
Nationally, there are examples of schools with high poverty that have high achievement. But replicating these results is difficult, and the reason these schools tend to become the subject of Hollywood movies is that they are rare.
Helping lower-income students succeed also can require more resources, such as for smaller class sizes and more tutoring and support help. But the Legislature keeps cutting base aid to schools, even as Wichita’s enrollment and percentage of poor students increase. Many GOP lawmakers also seem to want to shift more funding responsibilities to local school districts, which would further disadvantage poorer school districts.
The district is beginning to look at redistricting, which might help reduce poverty rates in some schools. More school choice, including charter schools and vouchers or tax credits for private schools, might also help some students improve their achievement, though results tend to be mixed.
Learning is happening in all of Wichita’s schools. And though some schools rank low on average, there are students in those schools who are excelling and teachers who are doing great work. But there is no getting around it — high poverty rates make the difficult job of education even tougher.