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December 1, 2022
Vol. 80
No. 4

Leading with the Six Priorities in Mind

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For many families, basic survival needs come before education. But schools have a role to play in making sure these needs are met.

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For many families that live in poverty, education is a sixth priority. Food, shelter, safety, health, and access to technology come first. This is not because these families do not value education, it's because life's challenges overshadow school as a priority. For our families to be able to focus on education, their basic needs must be met, and schools can help accomplish this. Mirroring the community school model, which aims to give students and families greater access to social supports, we must match the needs of the community with the resources we offer.

Identifying Gaps and Needs

To this end, as school leaders, we must take inventory of the programs and resources we have in our schools. Once we know what resources we have, we then need to survey caregivers to identify their needs. Where there are gaps, we need to develop a plan of action to fill them.
When our school—C.S. 55 Benjamin Franklin in the Bronx—started surveying families, we asked questions about their housing status, food needs, and security concerns. We also asked, "What can the school do to support you?" We found that our high-minority, high-poverty families needed help with food, shelter, safety, health, and access to technology. As one of more than 300 community schools in New York City, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work.
Society has long failed to meet the needs of some communities. Systemic racism and inequities have contributed to this glaring failure. In the Bronx, more than 40 percent of children live in poverty. The median family income is $36,090—less than half of the statewide average (Javorsky, 2021). This has left schools like ours with the responsibility of addressing these inequities, so that our children can be successful in life. In one example of how systems can work against success, low-performing schools lose government funding when they reach a certain level of improvement. This sad reality makes it important for schools to find ways to get resources from various places so that we are no longer totally dependent on funds from the city, state, or federal government.

Advocating for resources as a school leader should not be an optional part of the job. It should be mandatory if we are to combat persistent inequities.

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Advocating for resources as a school leader should not be an optional part of the job. It should be mandatory if we are to combat persistent inequities. Fortunately, we are not alone in this work. We can collaborate with our local elected officials, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and community leaders to ensure we are securing the resources we need so that all six priorities are met.

1. Food

Do you find it hard to do your job when you are hungry? I know that I find it difficult to read and write when I am hungry, and I cannot focus on my work. This struggle is experienced by our children as well. We cannot expect students to do well in the classroom or to do homework when their stomachs are growling. Food has a major impact on student performance. If children are hungry, they will not be able to concentrate, and they may become agitated. Successfully educating them means that we must make sure that they are well fed, which is why I consider food to be the number one priority in high-poverty communities.
In my book The Six Priorities: How to Find the Resources Your School Community Needs (ASCD, in press), I provide ways to address this basic need. One thing school leaders can do immediately is establish a food pantry in their building. Most restaurants, supermarkets, or local food distribution companies are willing to partner with schools to donate food items. Our school's food pantry, the "Tiger Bodega," also offers clothing and backpacks. We have a snack program in our cafeteria that provides fruits and vegetables for students throughout the day, so they have something to eat at all times. We have even created our own mini farms, through a partnership with Green Bronx Machine, a nonprofit organization. These aeroponic farms allow us to grow food on campus all year long and use it to feed our community.

2. Shelter

No child should have to worry about where they are going to sleep at night. We are failing as a society if we do not fix the housing situation in the United States. A 2020 report on homelessness from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, on a single night in January, roughly 580,000 people in the U.S. were homeless, including more than 170,000 families with children. Further, homelessness was shown to disproportionately affect Black and Brown people. We know homelessness is a serious problem in many of our cities, and it's important that we continue to monitor it in our schools.
According to The Coalition for the Homeless, a social services organization in New York City, more than 16,000 children slept in the city's shelters in July 2022. Children staying in shelters often have to deal with safety issues as well as uncomfortable (and sometimes uninhabitable) living situations. They may not get enough sleep or have adequate resources, including internet access, to do their homework.
In addition to those who are homeless, many children whose families fall below the poverty line live in some form of temporary housing, or they live "doubled up" with relatives in conditions that are inconvenient or unsafe. Having to share only one shower or bathroom with many other people can lead to students being late to school or to cleanliness issues. Far too many apartments in low-income housing are infested with rats and roaches, have building elevators that don't work, and contain dangers such as the presence of lead paint.
These and other safety issues—including crime—are a major concern for low-income families. My father supervised two buildings in the Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s. He ran those buildings with high standards and fought to keep drugs out. As a superintendent, he believed that the work he did was important to providing a high quality of life for the families he served.
Having seen firsthand my father's work within our community, I came to believe that if we partner with and invest in our communities, we can change the outcomes for our children. As community schools, in particular, we must work hard to connect families with safe and secure housing. This is not work that schools can do by themselves, however; it has to be a whole community initiative. Elected officials, community leaders, businesses, and all other constituents must collaboratively make the changes we want to see in the world.
School leaders can begin by becoming aware of the specific housing situations their families face. At our school, we have an attendance teacher and staff who conduct home visits. We also interview our parents when they register their children. We need to know their living situations to provide them with support.
Like every school in New York City, we have a full-time parent coordinator who assists our families with housing. We also have a partnership with Graham Windham that provides three social workers to support our students with housing and other issues. In addition, our staff speaks the various languages of our families. Often, we find that parents do not fill out applications for permanent housing due to language barriers or an inability to read. Strategic hiring has helped us close this gap, giving multilingual families a familiar place to go for help.
It is important that we work with local organizations to ensure our families have adequate living spaces. During the pandemic, we had to make sure that shelters in the area provided internet access for children to do their work. We reached out to local elected officials to advocate for our families, and as a result, they were able to gain access to this very important resource.

3. Safety

Through a good friend of mine—author, sports commentator, and New York Yankees executive Ray Negron—I once invited Hank Steinbrenner to C.S. 55. Hank Steinbrenner was the son of George Steinbrenner, former owner of the Yankees. We brought him into the school to see how we could get him to fund some of the school's programs. As we walked around the building, we stepped into a preK classroom where children had complained of being too cold. When we looked around the room for the source of the draft, we found bullet holes in one of the windows. The preK class had not been in session the day before, when the incident apparently took place. Had the children been in the classroom at the time of the shooting, who knows what would have happened. I looked over at Hank Steinbrenner and noticed that his eyes were tearing up. He looked at me and asked, "What do you need for your school?"
Hank Steinbrenner died in 2020, but every year my friend Ray Negron comes to the school to donate holiday gifts to the children and bring players to autograph items for them. The Yankees organization has helped fund arts and other programs at C.S. 55. They paid for our anti-bullying initiatives, provided baseball tickets for children with excellent attendance, and helped us establish a relationship with the local police precinct.
Sometimes, we need to make things "real" to get people to understand why safety is an ongoing concern in our school communities. We must work with local elected officials, community leaders, police departments, and community anti-violence organizations to develop strategic plans to improve safety for our families. With the help of our school safety team and a partnership with local elected officials, we were able to put security cameras in and around our building. We are now better prepared to address safety concerns. Although the conditions around our school are only nominally improving, we're working hard to be a safe haven for students.

4. Health

Healthy children perform better in school, so it is critical to ensure that all families have access to medical services that can help them deal with both chronic conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, and relatively minor illnesses, such as colds and the flu. I grew up in a community with a high rate of asthma and diabetes, and I have family members who missed many days of school because of their health conditions. I remember speaking to a specialist once about how students with colds, stuffy noses, and ear infections may be unable to hear the sounds they need to know as part of early literacy development. The consequences could include poor performance in phonics and other developmental areas.

What if you could provide health services at your school? Imagine having a full-service, on-site clinic with a dentist, doctor, ophthalmologist, psychologist, nurse, and social worker ready to meet all your students’ health needs.

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Families without access to medical insurance are often unable to provide the care needed to keep their children healthy. What if you could provide health services at your school? Imagine having a full-service, on-site clinic with a dentist, doctor, ophthalmologist, psychologist, nurse, and social worker ready to meet all your students' health needs. Having this kind of facility could increase attendance rates (like it did at our school) because students would not need to miss class for doctor visits or lingering illnesses. At C.S. 55 Benjamin Franklin, we partnered with the local hospital, Montefiore, to create a school-based health clinic. The hospital provides services to families at no cost to the school. They bill families' insurance, if families have it. But they never turn a student away because of a lack of resources.

5. Access to Technology

The digital divide has been a problem since the earliest days of computer-based technology, and although the gap is shrinking, it continues to require our attention. The pre-pandemic gap is clearly depicted in a 2016 report from the Free Press, which noted that "communities of color find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide for home-internet access—both in terms of adoption and deployment—in a manner that income differences alone don't explain" (p. 2). The report concluded that structural barriers and discrimination contribute to the digital divide, and decreasing the price of home internet access would allow for an increase in equitable participation.
The pandemic showed us the digital divide could be narrowed if everyone works to end it. For example, when the nation went into lockdown, elected officials, schools, and businesses came together in the Bronx (and many other cities) to ensure every child had access to a device and the internet. Now that the pandemic is slowing down, however, the fear is that the divide will return. We must work with our elected officials to ensure funds are set aside to continue to provide adequate technology and internet access for children. Schools need to establish partnerships with various organizations and apply for technology grants to sustain their programs. I formed a grant writing team at our school to look for organizations like DonorsChoose to secure the resources we need. Thanks to DonorsChoose in particular, our teachers have been able to secure more than 60 new laptops. We also have a newly furnished library, funded with a $10,000 grant from Home Depot. The money is out there: it's our job as school leaders to work with staff to find it.

6. Education

For many families, education is the sixth priority—coming well after food, shelter, safety, health, and access to technology. Of course, all six priorities are intertwined and need to be addressed in our efforts to support the whole child. But education is an especially complex matter. As the principal of a community school for over 18 years, I have seen success from focusing on the five priorities that come before education. Before the pandemic, we had one of the highest gains in math and literacy across New York City. Our attendance rate was close to 93 percent, which was significantly higher than schools with similar demographics.
Many areas in education compete for our attention and funding. Deciding which areas to concentrate on will depend on your school and community context. For communities like the one I serve, special attention must be paid to four historically underfunded areas: mental health, literacy, culturally relevant instruction, and sports and arts programs. Many schools in high-poverty communities struggle to fund these areas (as well as other "nice-to-have" education initiatives). This only perpetuates resource inequities between students in these communities and their wealthier peers.
Sometimes it's up to us as school leaders to make tough choices. For example, at C.S. 55, we delayed a plan to upgrade our school's computer lab to invest in more robust mental health supports for our students, many of whom face trauma daily.

Becoming an "Equity Warrior"

From the problems of food access to the inequities that exist with technology, education is not—and cannot be—the first priority for many of our families. Although this is a major challenge, many people are actively fighting to address these basic needs so that our families can focus on education. We must continue to work to provide ideas, tools, and action plans to help schools and communities take steps to address these needs.
If we match the resources we provide in our schools with the needs of the community, and we are willing to put in the work, I am certain that we can provide children and families with access to nutritious food, adequate shelter, a safe environment, mental and physical health supports, technology, and a high-quality education. Once we become equity warriors in this way, we will give our students a better chance at success in school and life.
References

Henry, M., de Sousa, T., Roddey, C., Gayen, S., & Bednar, T. J. (2021, January). The 2020 annual homeless assessment report (AHAR) to Congress: Part 1: Point-in-time estimates of homelessness. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Javorsky, N. (2021, January 12). Bronx families face greatest barriers to ‘well-being' across New York's counties, report finds. City Limits.

Turner, S. D. (2016, December). "Digital denied: The impact of systemic racial discrimination on home-internet adoption." Free Press.

Luis Eladio Torres, president of the New York City Elementary School Principals Association, has been a principal in New York City for over 18 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy for 10 years, Torres earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from City College, a master's degree in education from Mercy College, and an advanced degree in administration from Hunter College.

Torres then entered the NYC Leadership Academy, after which he was given the responsibility of leading C.S. 55. Torres and his team turned C.S. 55—once the lowest-performing school in New York City, located in the Morrisania housing projects in the Bronx—into a model school. Torres has raised millions of dollars for C.S. 55 and surrounding schools, acting as his school’s spokesperson, publicist, and cheerleader.

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