Perry County & Poverty: A Case Study | View in browser 

The Learning Supports Pathway
Highlands Elementary and Tardiness: A Case Study
Getting to Know: Perry County
     In the area of Alabama known as the Black Belt region, Perry County, Alabama faces the challenge of rural isolation, unemployment, and poverty. Of the 1,089 students in Perry County, 100% qualify for free-reduced lunch, 99% are African American, and 70% of children live in a home with a single, female parent.

     After analyzing their data, the district identified their main barriers to learning as chronic absences for approximately 20% of their students, the resulting impact that absenteeism had on their graduation rate, and the decline in both fiscal and human resources.

     Perry County used the learning supports framework professional learning opportunity to focus on improving attendance and for analyzing and evaluating existing programs and expenditures. Under the leadership of Malinda White, School Improvement and Learning Supports Specialist, the district and school learning supports teams developed strategies to focus on students who were chronically absent. Before the learning supports framework use, absenteeism was addressed by a letter to parents and the potential for legal action. After the learning supports framework was applied, the district focused on prevention by developing positive relationships with the families, regular communication to encourage and support, and finding the root causes of absenteeism and mitigating the circumstances.

     Through the work of the learning supports framework, Perry County reduced the number of absences from 20,897 in the 2012-2013 school year to 16,803 in the 2013-2014 school year. Since 2014, Perry County has exceeded a 95% attendance rate. The graduation rate has also improved from 89% in 2012 to 95% in 2015.
Overcoming: Generational Poverty
Dr. Merrianne Dyer,
Learning Supports Specialist for
Perry County
     John Heard, Superintendent of Perry County Schools – Perry County, Alabama, located in Alabama’s Black Belt region has rich soil to support farming and a rich history of contributions to society.  However, the downturn in the economy and the resulting loss of employment opportunities has left Perry County with the challenge of educating children in the grip of generational poverty.
Research and Related Links
Meg Anderson. nprEd. “How To Help Kids In Poverty Adjust To The Stability Of School After Break”.
American Psychological Association, “Effects of Poverty, Hunger and Homelessness on Children and Youth”.
United States Department of Education. “Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program Non Regulatory Guidance: Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act”.
Where to Find Us
At-Risk Youth National Forum
Superintendent Shawn Hagerty will be presenting on Learning Supports
National Title I Conference
Find the Scholastic FACE table in the exhibit hall for further information on Learning Supports
National Conference on Education (AASA)
Learning Supports Specialist Dr. Merrianne Dyer along with superintendents Daniel Boyd, Jacqueline Brooks, and Trey Holliday, will present on Learning Supports.
Where We've Been
The Learning Supports team wishes you a happy end to Winter Break!

     With declining job opportunities, many families left the county to seek work.  With a decline in enrollment, we had to consolidate schools and, at the same time, eliminate positions of social workers, reading coaches, and other key support areas. Principals had to find, or create, their own resources to help students.  We also have trouble keeping teachers as the pay in Perry County is not competitive with surrounding areas.

     In the 2013 school year, Perry County elected to participate in the first cohort of the Alabama State Department of Education’s Learning Supports initiative. Through a partnership with Scholastic, the Office of Learning Supports, provides workshops and coaching for three years on how to address barriers to learning. We decided to focus our work on improving attendance, and Malinda White led the work for Perry County. We saw an improvement with an average now of 95% attendance rates. 

     During our third year, we learned that Perry County had been included in a grant from American Express, to develop principals and prepare future principals using the Learning Supports Framework.  This was timely since our leadership training focus, particularly with principals, was declining during a new time of new assessments and standards. The grant, Alabama Strong:  Principals as Catalysts for School Improvement, gives Perry County the opportunity to prepare and develop school leaders so that they can have a positive impact immediately.  This opportunity was impactful on many levels.

     However, like many districts in need of academic improvement, we have other support services from the State from the Office of Student Learning. I worried that we would have too many improvement efforts that would require a lot of work and time from our principals and be too fragmented.  Therefore, I requested that the ALSDE Office of Student Learning regional support, Molly Killingsworth, work collaboratively with the staff of the ALSDE- Scholastic Principal’s Path Grant team to work hand in hand to help our school leaders.

     Since our most need for improvement is academic achievement, Ms. Killingsworth led the work of utilizing our data to analyze where our instructional gaps are and to provide strategies to apply. Then, the coaches from the ALSDE-Scholastic Principal Path worked on how to use individual leadership styles, organize leadership teams, and communicate throughout the district and schools that will best support those instructional strategies. They also provide specific strategies on how to address poverty, lack of motivation, and other factors we face.   It is important that the whole process of the Principal Path grant work is having people look at themselves as a person and how to improve yourself as a leader so that you can be a vehicle to school improvement.

     By combining the efforts of the ALSDE Office of Student Learning and Office of Learning Supports, there is no duplication in the professional development, and the principals and aspiring principals can immediately apply what they are learning. The best things about the Learning Supports approach is that it is application- not just theory. Theory is good, but the work in Learning Supports shows us to put it into practice and make an impact. We now have a stronger path to improvement for Perry County.

     Molly Killingsworth, ALSDE Office of Student Learning Regional Support – The Alabama Department of Education’s Office of Student Learning was already providing support in the area of School Leadership for Perry County. When Perry County was awarded the American Express grant for deeper work with principals and aspiring principals, it just made sense for us to collaborate to ensure we are maximizing our efforts for the best results.

     This collaboration will strengthen the efforts towards continuous improvement and there was positive change almost immediately. Instead of addressing various issues in isolation, school and district administrators are strategic in developing a process towards improvement, with a structure of support and accountability.

     Having a system of learning supports is crucial as there are many outside forces that impact students’ lives, and their ability to attend, focus, and learn in school.  By addressing the forces that impede student learning, the leaders are helping to remove barriers, thus increasing the likelihood that students are able to be successful in school.

     This initiative has the potential to bring about significant change in schools and districts, particularly in poverty stricken areas.  Having appropriate supports in place helps eliminate the barriers to learning, which leads to our goal of academic achievement for all students.
3. What They're Saying About: Poverty
     According to the American Psychological Association, approximately one in five children in the United States live in poverty.  The effects of poverty are not limited to reduced and substandard housing and nutritional options, but are also seen in performance in school.

     Each January, students return to school following winter break, many of whom are unprepared to learn. To a child whose family is fraught with poverty, time off from school is more often than not anything but a holiday “break”, and more akin to chaos lacking structure or stability. Meg Anderson of the National Public Radio, calls it a “crippling time of insecurity when it comes to food and shelter”, and states that it’s easy for teachers to pick up on this. Anderson explains that a student may seem overly hostile, anxious, or dependent, blatantly hesitant to head back home at the end of the day.

     Sonya Romero Smith, a kindergarten teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, runs a class for her local union where she discusses what teachers can do to work with the most vulnerable, and usually impoverished students. She notes the time after winter break being one of the most crucial periods to take action. In addition to dirty clothes and excessive exhaustion, Smith describes an inability to stay focused as one key sign of a chaotic break.

     The chaos and lack of structure associated with poverty can be very stressful for a child. Ross Thompson is a University of California professor who studies both poverty and the social-emotional development in children. Thompson explains that stress not only hinders a child’s ability to control his or her actions, but can also impact language and memory skills. He goes on to say that “a child’s behavior is managed by predicting their environment”, so it is the unpredictability of winter break that causes a delay in easing back into school.

      Thompson leaves readers with the following tips, both small and long-term ideas:
•  Shorten time spent sitting still and add more active lessons into the day
•  Use verbal transitions and songs, like a cleanup song, to reinforce routine
•  Train teachers to be aware of what might be going on in students’ lives.
By doing
      so, they can build strategies that address the issues that chronic stress brings.

     Romero Smith believes that having food and clothes available as tangible securities is a very important post-break procedure. She also advocates directing families to resources such as shelters, community centers, libraries and public transportation options. What most educators can agree on is that school should be a safe zone, and Romero Smith leaves us with a final suggestion that teachers should encourage their students not to worry, and reassure them that they will be back.

      The McKinney-Vento Act's Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program and Title I Part A funds provide homeless students with “protections and services to ensure they can enroll in and attend school, complete their high school education, and continue on to higher education” in hopes of avoiding poverty in adulthood. The “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), strengthens these programs and the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness, from early childhood through the end of high school. The amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act went into effect on October 1, 2016. The educational stability amendments for children in foster care were effective as of December 10, 2016. The homelessness amendments to Title I, Part A will take effect after the 2016-2017 academic year.

     Contributing Research:
     Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, as amended by the
     Every Student Succeeds Act

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