Whitney OakleyWhitney Oakley is the principal of Sylvan Elementary in the Alamance-Burlington School District in Snow Camp, North Carolina. She is member of the NIUSI-LeadScape community of inclusive school principals, transforming Sylvan’s practices to be equitable and inclusive of all students. Whitney’s current initiatives focus on meeting the needs of Sylvan’s changing population, with increasing numbers of culturally and linguistically diverse students and families struggling in the current economic downturn. This blog is a direct response to Dr. Randy Bomer’s discussion of Leadership in the interest of economically disadvantaged students.

As a principal of an elementary school with steadily increasing numbers of economically disadvantaged students, I have seen a shift in focus on academic as well as systemic strategies in our approach to student success. Randy Bomer’s discussion of deficit perspective is well-taken as political issues surrounding school performance have highlighted the fact that schools are struggling to achieve adequate progress within the economically disadvantaged subgroup. In a position as a school leader, I have acknowledged perplexities surrounding students that fall within this category including, student identity, priorities, and the role of the school itself.

Mixed messages surround the identity of economically disadvantaged students. Targeting students who are Hispanic females who struggle in reading is straightforward. However, with legal implications preventing principals from knowing which students are economically disadvantaged, we must take the stance of treating all students as if they are at-risk for something. Best instructional practices do not differ based on economic, racial, or gender status. As a result, we have aligned schedules, resources, and staff development to focus on student engagement within small group instruction. Regardless of poverty level, each individual child brings his own unique perspective and past experiences to school. Within small groups, teachers are able to better identify what individuals have to offer and meet these students where they are instructionally. Teaching to the middle has been considered a poor practice for decades; however, the diversity of the population and the need to hold high expectations for individual students makes small group instruction a significant priority in an increasingly low-income community.

Academic priorities have shifted as the wavering economy has had a significant impact on the poverty level of our student population. Many families have relocated or combined homes in an effort to survive. Within one year, our free and reduced lunch percentage has increased steadily to include more than half of the student population. In addition to modifying our instructional approach, we have shifted our priorities to ensure that the basic needs of students are met. Transportation has proven to be a challenge for parents and has resulted in limited health care for students. As a result, I have spent a great deal of time searching for ways to bring dental, mental, and physical health care providers to the school. I have found myself adjusting my perspective from strictly an academic focus to finding ways to meet basic health needs of students and their families in order for academic success to become a reality. In an effort to meet the needs of all students, I have begun researching ways to gain funding for a school based health center. Holding high academic expectations can only have a positive impact if students are having their basic needs met on a daily basis. As the center of the community, the role of the school has indeed changed. Rather than merely a place to meet academic needs, the school has become a place for families to come for assistance with needs such as groceries, utility bills, and health care.

Leading a school in an increasingly challenged economic area has required a shift in priorities for school staff. However, rather than trying to target struggling families, we have adopted an approach in which students are treated as individuals, are taught as individuals, and are respected as individuals. Regardless of economic status, each student brings something distinctive to the table. Providing a school climate that embraces the individual, ensures basic needs are met, and holds high expectations for each student is my job as a school leader. Rather than holding a deficit perspective, I am encouraging staff members to adopt a surplus perspective, identifying what students have to offer that will enable us to help them reach their full potential as future leaders of the community.

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