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Conference on Educational Leadership

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April 2008 | Volume 65 | Number 7
Poverty and Learning Pages 74-79

Understanding Students' Strengths and Struggles

Donna Marie San Antonio

To know our students, we must know their communities and acknowledge their challenges.

Good relationships in school matter. And they matter a great deal to students from low-income families, whose struggles and strengths may be unknown to teachers. A student's ability to stay engaged in school can be affected by that student's home responsibilities, lack of family resources, and peer-group tensions related to social class hierarchies. Low-income students in particular benefit from having a meaningful relationship with at least one school staff member who knows their interests, skills, and struggles.

The urgency of making meaningful connections with students becomes clear when we consider the dire consequences that may result if students disengage from school. Nearly one in three high school students in the United States fails to graduate from high school, and nearly half of students from historically disadvantaged groups fail to graduate (Swanson, 2003). Students of all races and classes graduate more often when they attend schools in which high school graduation is the norm, yet only 50 percent of black students and 40 percent of Latino students attend such high schools (Balfanz & Letgers, 2004). High school graduation and college completion have profound life implications. The gap in income between college graduates and people without a high school diploma has grown larger in the last 30 years (Mishel, Bernstein, & Allegretto, 2005). Those holding a four-year college degree now earn, on average, two-and-one-half times as much as those without a high school diploma.


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