I grew up in poverty—first in Camden, NJ, then in northwest Philadelphia. My mother earned a meager salary as a hairdresser. I never knew what my father’s official career was, but I knew he supplemented his income on the streets, and I was exposed to his criminal activities at a very early age. Growing up, my two brothers and I never had much. We lived month to month, waiting for the first of each month for our government assistance benefits to kick in to save us from hunger, homelessness, and despair.
Traveling to and from school safely—without getting into trouble on the streets in Camden, NJ, and Philadelphia—was an adventure in itself. My parents always feared for my safety and made me travel significant distances outside my catchment so that I would not fall into the wrong crowds within my neighborhood.
My parents divorced when I was 8 years old, and my life continued to worsen. We were sad, scared kids traumatized by the anxiety and pain around us. We were forced to move with my father into an even more deeply impoverished, neglected community. Fortunately, after several painstaking years, my mother pulled her life together, allowing me to move from an extremely poor neighborhood to a less poor community during my teen years. It was still a challenge because I was destined to attend some of the worst-rated public schools in Philadelphia. However, my mom was determined not to see our family progress impeded by a substandard education, so she did what I still consider one of the most selfless acts of love and sacrifice—she enrolled me in the more affluent Pennsauken School District in New Jersey, illegally using a friend’s address. For five years at 6:00 a.m., my mother drove me across state lines, from Philadelphia to New Jersey, for school. She saved the tip money from her hairdresser job to ensure I had fare for the two-hour bus ride home. As an educator, I now realize just how very illegal and frustrating my mother’s actions were, and that she could have been fined the “tuition” burdened by the Pennsauken taxpayers of that school district, if not worse. We would not have been able to afford such a steep expense. My mother committed this offense out of desperation, to ensure my personal safety and to be assured that I could get a solid secondary public education.
Philadelphia and Poverty
This desperation still occurs. As a principal, I see the same burdens of poverty, family stress, and risk-taking sacrifices. When I talk with my students, I can truly identify with their experiences of traveling from all sections of the city to be a part of a great school community at any cost. Poverty is a plague that feeds a fear of not having, a feeling of being less, and, most dangerously, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that paralyzes families to believe that their destiny lies only as part of a permanent underclass. Poverty has evolved due to deindustrializing in Philadelphia, which left industrialized labor out of the advancing labor markets of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Over time, Philadelphia’s enduring poverty has exacerbated a “de facto” segregation of the city’s residents, racially and socioeconomically. Zip codes where children lived became a significant determining factor of our students’ postsecondary financial outlook. The suburban flight of resources, an underfunded school district—and discriminatory practices “grandfathered” systemically and unchecked for generations—furthered the divide.
Philadelphia failed to connect the dots—linking poverty, racial, and income inequality with academic performance in our schools. While the city has made strides in raising the four-year high school graduation rate, achievement still lags behind state and national averages. But the city struggles to prepare students entering the modern labor force for the new, changing economy.
Being poor and on public assistance greatly influences one’s outlook on life, money, community, and future prospects. People like my mother are willing to take chances because it’s well known that the more affluent districts are usually perceived as having the safest, nicest schools, and they provide students with the best chance at successful futures. Who wouldn’t want their child to go to a well-funded, well-resourced school environment full of college-bound students? I personally experienced that change in the school environment as a youth. It’s emblematic of the crisis that continues to rage today across the country about the need to address the issues around poverty, equity, access, and systemic institutional failures aggregated by race.
Succeeding in an Impoverished School
Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the 10 largest U.S. cities, which is why it’s known as “America’s Poorest Big City.” Children from low-income families are more likely than children on the ends of the spectrum—those from high-income or deeply impoverished families—to enter school with lower reading and math skills. They also show an increased risk of having social-emotional and behavioral challenges. Our families are in survival mode all the time.
Data released in 2018 by the U.S. Census Bureau and Opportunity Insights, a research and policy institute at Harvard University, looked at how a person’s neighborhood determines whether students were able to successfully climb the ladder of upward social mobility to achieve the American dream. Known as the Opportunity Atlas (www.opportunityatlas.org), the research includes a mapping interface that allows users to research 70,000 U.S. census tracts and understand which tracts offer children the best chances of succeeding in life. The study specifically looked at neighborhoods in Philadelphia along two tracts, cross-referencing household incomes of current residents and the neighborhoods they grew up in.
As my life illustrates (and according to this research), the study highlights how growing up poor, where you live, and your education level can determine your prospects in life. The research also highlights how more affluent neighborhoods have well-functioning schools, impactful places of worship, sufficient health facilities, quality community centers, and functioning libraries. In addition, successful neighborhoods possess “human and social capital” networks that expose students to relationships among people who serve as role models, mentors, and good teachers and include things like community summer camps and programs that teach young people not only how to apply to college or get a job, but also how to value community so they feel more inclined to make a positive impact on the world around them.
This is certainly not to say these “at-risk” students are doomed to academic purgatory. On the contrary, I am a living example that our children can overcome. But moving to avoid a troubling destiny is not an option for many of our families. So, I am convinced more than ever of the imperative of bluntly confronting decades of failed educational and municipal policies with our advocacy, our voices, and our leadership work. Educational leaders must accept and embrace our obligations of becoming advocates for a plan on how educational and municipal systems must attack this plague. We must influence the shaping and changing of educational policies of equitable opportunities in our schools and work to understand that schools are anchor institutions in our communities that must be bastions of love and hope for our students. We also must be prepared to take action on their behalf.
School leaders have to be the messengers to our communities, helping them understand the importance of quality, equitable, caring, college-going learning experiences in our classrooms complemented by targeted workforce development training. We must elevate students in our most impoverished communities—who are often destined to be the lowest-paid, lowest-skilled workers—into middle-class-wage job opportunities. Leading an impoverished school community, along with my own personal experiences, has imparted some important lessons that I carry with me to this day. I hope to pass them along to schools and school leaders who believe we have a unique opportunity to guide our students—regardless of their background or their zip codes—on how to live more meaningful lives:
1. We can’t deal with poverty in schools without local reconciliation. The wealth gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is not a new phenomenon; it’s just the extent of the gap now appears to be at previously unseen proportions. The truth of the matter is that our established systems and institutions are woven with deeply racist policies, practices, and attitudes that continue to harm the Black, brown, and indigenous people of color, as well as the poor in our rural and urban communities. These policies have led to an unequal system where both implicit and explicit advantages are based on the color of their skin and/or the families’ socioeconomic status, leading to better opportunities in jobs, educaton, and housing. In Philadelphia, those systems and institutions, including schools, have prevented Black families from upward social mobility and amassing wealth in the same way that white families could, resulting in the growth of the racial wealth gap and housing insecurity that persists today.
So, our schools and leaders must collectively and individually reconcile our local histories on racial inequities, work to understand systemic racism, and take actions beyond the protests and calls for reform. We must be committed to building new transparent systems and infrastructures throughout school systems that work for everyone, not just for some of us. School-based and executive leadership must be required to demonstrate high-leverage, equitable commitments of financial and human capital to struggling school communities through their words and deeds, and we must hold them accountable, articulating clearly when current systems in place are not working.
2. Poverty is a circumstance, not an identity. Education not only serves to enlighten the masses, but it must succeed in getting students and families to look past labels and stereotypes. Education is in the business of faithfully serving our students and families, so it is imperative they know we see them, each of them, without judgment of their circumstances. However, it also does not mean that we avoid the tough conversations with our families and students. We can, and should, continue to set high performance expectations for them just as we would anyone else. Those high expectations can also be coupled with multitiered intervention supports so our students can get a helping hand with their challenges but not have their success limited by excuses. We must balance empathy with accountability. The heart of our work is the understanding that we must help students shed the stigma of poverty. Schools can provide students and communities with choice; choice yields freedom, and freedom can yield dignity.
3. Strive for quality partnerships. Obtaining some measure of long-term success cannot occur unless we cultivate relationships with local leaders and organizations in our local communities. The circumstance of impoverished communities requires a commitment to working together with the communities we serve. Though it helps, money alone will not solve the problem of poverty. Local problems can be addressed with more local solutions—and by thinking local and acting local, we can build strong teams that will concentrate intellectuals, the business community, and public sector thought leaders to support innovative strategies. Solving some of our toughest challenges requires all of us to work together as part of a singular ecosystem that includes municipalities, the private sector, and community engagement. At my school, Paul Robeson High School, we focus on two approaches, workforce development and college readiness, which personalize learning experiences for all students. Whether it is cultivating entrepreneurial spirit, dreaming of life on a college campus, or assisting their direct entry into the workforce, we allocate the necessary resources to make it happen for every student.
To support the initiative, we established expanded dual-enrollment and early-college opportunities with several colleges and universities. I also created community partnerships with private sector businesses and banks for students to receive workforce global job market career coaching. We have to be dedicated to trying new, often untested, learning models and engaging organizations that are just as devoted to the challenge of inspiring students. By taking the risk of extending our professional responsibilities beyond the classroom, we may fail, but we may inevitably find our way to not only a better understanding of our students but also finding better solutions to the impediments to their success.
4. Hope. After 25 years in education, the most important lesson I learned is that schools are critical in providing hope to our communities. President Obama would often say, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” It is easy to find reasons to delay taking action and making changes. However, schools and school leaders must provide the necessary moral leadership rooted in the values of equity and opportunities. Our moral leadership and the hope we provide our students will be the most purposeful contributions we will give toward poverty reduction. My experiences leading the Paul Robeson High School community have made me realize that “we” are the leaders and the impetus for social change we are waiting for. I hope that educators and school leaders realize the enormous opportunity to level the playing field for our students.
Our primary job is to provide a strategic direction in the learning process. For many schools that are suffering from the concentrated effects of poverty, all of the aforementioned qualities will impact the way we develop effective solutions to problems of poverty and the hope we give to our students.
I firmly believe schools are ready to lead in both the academic and social arenas, driving communities to believe that all people are born equal to one another. As long as I have the privilege of working with students, I will always empathize with them. I believe now is the time school leadership needs to take a firm step forward to lead society. Let’s embrace the moment! For if not us, then who? If not now, then when?
Richard M. Gordon IV is the principal of Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia and the 2021 NASSP National Principal of the Year.