By Dr. Deborah Taub, Assistant Professor of Special Education
The recent report on the Analysis of Attendance and Graduation Outcomes at Public High Schools in the District of Columbia, released January 16, 2018 demonstrates that students who live in low income areas are more likely to be absent. There are some who may point to this correlation and infer causation: “Poor people do not care about education; thus, they do not make their children go to school”. Historically, this type of thinking has led to educational and social reforms that focus on diminishing the “bad” influence of the families and increasing acculturation into the beliefs, values, and practices of white, middle class, heterosexuals. A historical example includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 1867 practice of removing children from their homes in an attempt to civilize them. By keeping them in a boarding school, the hope was that children would not be corrupted by their families’ culture and values. Today, we see some schools designed in an effort to assimilate students into white, middle class values and practices by regulating as much of their time, answers, and instruction as possible. This “culture of poverty” thinking ignores the larger political and socio-economic systems that are built on racism, ableism, and gender prejudices that have stacked the deck against students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students of color, with disabilities, misogyny, and those who do not identify as cisgendered.
As my education students and I explore the theme of Seeking Social Justice for Marginalized Communities: A Call for Advocacy and Social Action, I can see them becoming alternately overwhelmed about the many systemic barriers that stand between the students in their classrooms and their goals and excited about the strategies and skills they are learning to help remove and reduce those barriers. As OSSE moves forward with new policies and procedures around recording absenteeism and supporting students, I hope that it considers not just compliance but thoroughly examining the systems and practices that address the barriers leading to individual students being absent from school.
This issue of attendance is about so much more than whether students’ bodies are in seats at school; it is a symptom of the social and economic inequities that is in effect for people of color and those in poverty. It is a result of teaching practices that focus on a mythical “typical” student and thus meet so few students’ actual needs. It is an outcome of the de-professionalization of the teaching profession and the lack of focus on the whole student: body, mind, and heart. And, it is a result of viewing teachers as interchangeable cogs in a wheel who need little training and on-going professional development to help them meet the needs of the wide-variety of students who comprise their classrooms and schools.
While OSSE and Trinity are not able to single-handedly remove the barriers of racism, poverty, and prejudice, we, as educators and advocates have the power to reduce these barriers for our students who are then able to reduce the barriers for their students. By working in interdisciplinary and multi-level teams of educators, administrators, and counselors, our students are learning to focus on the whole child, both in and out of school. This perspective helps planning lessons using a framework of teaching and learning that addresses issues of culturally responsive instruction, diversity, and individual strengths and needs, our students are learning how to create welcoming and supportive classrooms that meet the needs of all students. Rather than buying into the mythical “culture of poverty,” we should be focusing on a cycle of empowerment. Together we are starting this new cycle.