The Depths of How Poverty Affects Learning: A Superintendent's Quest

The Depths of How Poverty Affects Learning: A Superintendent's Quest
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San Antonio Independent School District Board President Patti Radle (left) and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez (right). (Photo courtesy SAISD)

When Pedro Martinez took over as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District last year, he was presented with a paradox. With a trove of research establishing that poverty is the unfortunate predictor of poor academic achievement, conventional wisdom was that the district, with its 93 percent poverty rate, was doomed.

Yet the school board that hired Martinez had given him an audacious goal: To transform San Antonio ISD into a national model for other urban school districts. Individual schools have gotten outstanding results with impoverished students, but an entire district? To most people it would sound like a fool’s errand.

The oldest of 10 siblings, Martinez was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. His family moved to inner-city Chicago when he was five; his father left school after the second grade and never earned more than $7 an hour. Martinez was the first in his family to graduate from high school.

He knew poverty didn’t have to be destiny. And he knew his toughest challenge would be convincing others of this. To start that conversation, he needed data.  

For decades, educators and education policymakers have defined poverty rates in schools as the number of students whose family income qualifies them for free or subsidized meals. This single set of data influences virtually every decision. It matters in terms of everything from how funding is distributed to whether teachers are evaluated fairly.

Yet Martinez’ personal and professional experience told him that the challenges faced by students who are entitled to subsidized meals vary widely with their family’s income. As of 2015, a family of four must have annual earnings below $31,525 to qualify for free meals and below $44,863 to qualify for reduced-price meals. Median family income nationwide was $54,000 in 2014.

Inner-city San Antonio, however, is much poorer. Median family income in San Antonio ISD is $30,363. One in five adults didn’t graduate from high school and 42 percent don’t work. The disparities between the central city and the booming suburbs of surrounding Bexar County make San Antonio the most unequal community in the nation, according to the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based organization founded by big names in Silicon Valley.

By comparison, neighboring school systems can count on having a lot more money to serve students with far fewer challenges. Northside San Antonio Independent School District, for example, collects taxes on $40 billion in property; North East Independent School District taxes $30 billion and San Antonio ISD $13 billion. Meanwhile, median family income in the two suburban districts is more than 40 percent higher than San Antonio ISD.

In July, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a working paper that examined the impact a family’s level of poverty had on students’ learning. Students who qualified for meal subsidies at least once between kindergarten and eighth grade were an average of two grades behind their affluent peers in terms of academic performance. The very poorest, the 14 percent who got free meals every year, were three grades behind.  


Over the summer, Martinez created a map depicting the level of poverty at each of the district’s 99 schools. Using block-by-block earnings data corresponding to every student’s address, he calculated the median family income for each school building.

Just one, Mission Academy, had median family income near the national average, about $54,000. Several schools had median incomes less than a third as much. The map revealed surprises—some of the poorest schools outperformed more comfortable ones—as well as differing needs.

The Young Women’s Leadership Academy, last year named an exemplary Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education, was solidly in the middle of the pack with a median income of $35,978. Last year it graduated 100 percent of its students, and all were accepted to a college or university.

Two of the schools with the lowest family incomes, JT Brackenridge Elementary and Lamar Elementary, had higher percentages of students scoring “advanced” on annual state reading and math assessments than Mission Academy. At one of the two schools with the highest percentage of students with advanced scores, two-thirds of students qualified for subsidized lunch. At the other, more than 92 percent did.

There are, of course, communities throughout the country where schools that are beating the odds with impoverished students have sparked discussion—and political resistance—about what’s possible. But in greater San Antonio’s 17 school districts, it is still generally accepted that poverty is an insurmountable barrier to school success.

Martinez hasn’t put the data on the district website or published it. But he has begun carrying the green-and-white map, printed on an oversized piece of paper, around with him.

“At a micro level, let’s use this to change the conversation,” Martinez said. “At a macro level we have the opportunity to change the conversation with the community.”

“Numbers Without Heart”

One of the most impoverished schools on Martinez’ map, JT Brackenridge has a median family income of $16,863. It’s located in the poorest precinct in one of the poorest zip codes in the United States. Located just west of booming downtown San Antonio, the area is in fact often referred to by its zip code, 78207.

The current president of San Antonio ISD’s board, Patti Radle, taught at Brackenridge for 12 years. Many of her students, she recalls, came from one of the nation’s first public housing projects, Alazan-Apache Courts.

Radle lives a few blocks away in a house painted the vivid purple of a Peeps marshmallow. A social-justice Catholic to her core, Radle has lived in the neighborhood since 1969, a year after the CBS documentary “Hunger in America” shocked Middle America with depictions of starvation among its Mexican-American residents.

Now as then, the subsistence economy is invisible to drivers commuting on the freeways to the wealthy suburbs north of the city limit. The economic boom that has made San Antonio one of the fastest growing cities in the country bypassed the barrio – or “hood” – entirely.

“People can go by without having to see it,” Radle said. “These numbers have no hearts.”

Despite its grim statistical portrait, the neighborhood has a stable, vibrant culture. A block from Radle’s place is the first house built by Habitat for Humanity’s first local chapter. It took a year to build, she recalls. The owner’s been building out ever since.

Down the street is a mural where, every year on the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, the community gathers to remember youth lost to a wave of gang violence in the early ‘90s. The man who owns the store it’s painted on is Muslim, Radle notes, but was “just fine with a mural of Jesus on his wall.”

A few blocks further is an intersection Radle refers to as the place “where the money ran out.” Cross Montezuma Street and the sidewalks and curbs end. When it rains, water runs into the foundations of the mostly ramshackle wooden houses wedged into 25-foot lots. Walls slouch into the ground and holes threaten roofs. With 30 percent of students homeless or lacking stable housing, many are sheltering multiple families.

Regarding the school’s better-than-average outcomes, Radle has a couple of opinions. For starters, the staff is unusually stable and the principal strong, she notes: “When I go into JT Brackenridge, there’s such a spirit of ‘We’re all in this together.’”

The other is a concerted effort by community groups—including a nonprofit Radle and her husband have run as volunteers since 1972—to keep kids in afterschool and summer programs and to try to expose them to the kinds of enrichment middle- and upper-class families provide their children.

“They have the same brain matter as students in Alamo Heights,” Radle said, referring to the city’s wealthy northeastern neighbor. “It’s one thing to compare the lives of kids between 8:00 [a.m.] and 3:00 [p.m.], when they are in school.”

“If our kids had come to school with these thousands of vocabulary words it wouldn’t be quite the challenge to their teachers to bring them up to speed,” she adds. “So what can we do to build up these experiences, this vocabulary?”

It’s the kind of insight Martinez can use when he shows the map to the dozens of outside groups that partner with the district. There are schools where kids who stay for afterschool activities already are being fed three meals and a snack but who need a backpack of food to take home for the rest of the family.

“This is data at the school level we can share with our partners,” he said. “If you don’t understand and you’re not adjusting your supports around it, you’re not going to have success.”

The “Belief Gap”

New research confirms much of what Martinez is finding -- that not all “poverty” is the same. In July, Katherine Michelmore and Susan Dynarski, professors at Syracuse University and the University of Michigan, respectively, issued “The Gap Within the Gap,” a working paper that proposes a method for identifying the most disadvantaged students. Using data on all Michigan students, the researchers first identified those who ever received subsidized meals and then sorted out those who were eligible year after year.

While half of Michigan eighth graders were eligible for meals at the time of study, just 14 percent had been eligible every year since kindergarten. The first group of students were more likely to be “transitorily disadvantaged”—to come from families with earnings nearer the cutoff for eligibility.

The others were “persistently disadvantaged,” unable to climb out of poverty. Students in the study sample who qualify for school meals are about two grades behind their wealthier peers.  Children who qualify for free lunch every year, Michelmore and Dynarski found, were three grades behind.

The data also revealed that it’s not the number of years in poverty that widens the gap but the depth of the poverty. Persistently disadvantaged students are more concentrated in urban areas, while the transitorily disadvantaged are more concentrated in suburbs. The persistently disadvantaged attend schools with a higher concentration of students eligible for subsidized meals than those who are transitorily disadvantaged.

Likely none of this comes as a surprise to San Antonio teachers who, Radle and Martinez say, often are deeply invested in their students and, with the best of intentions, don’t want to further burden them with tough academics.        

“It’s not that they don’t love them,” Radle said. “It’s unconscious. It’s a sense that maybe they’re struggling with so much. We have to help teachers get past that and give them license to expect more.

“They’ll say, ‘I love these kids and I love this school,’” she adds. “So one of the things I say is, ‘So then let’s find a way to love them to excellence.’”

In addition to using his map to start conversations, Martinez is confronting this “belief gap” by raising expectations. A new school that will use curriculum and techniques developed for gifted students to teach kids of all abilities opened this fall, adding to the district’s growing portfolio of magnet schools, specialized academies, and high schools offering early-college programming. The much-lauded Young Women’s Leadership Academy is being replicated as a boys-only school.

By 2020, he wants the number of San Antonio ISD students scoring at the advanced level on state tests to soar to 30 percent from the current 7 percent. And he wants proficiency in reading and math to rise to 90 percent, currently at 63 and 62 percent, respectively. The goal is to raise the number of graduates who are college-ready according to college entrance exams to 43 percent from 5, and the percentage of students who don’t need to repeat high school-level classes in college to 74 percent from 40.

(To education policy veterans, the district’s current performance numbers will seem high in comparison to other urban districts. Under Texas’ uniquely confusing accountability system, students who are not working at grade level can still “pass” the tests. The system also has been criticized for setting a low bar for proficiency.)

Each display of success, the superintendent believes, will inspire a change in San Antonio ISD’s culture from one where poverty is seen as an insurmountable barrier to one where stories like Martinez’ own are commonplace. 

“Too many people have tried to address poverty, but it’s a much bigger challenge than you’d ever think,” Martinez said. “We’re raising the bar on everyone. We’re pushing hard for high expectations for everyone. We need help, but we are also needing to be held accountable.”

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