4 ways to remove barriers for underrepresented students

Researchers spotlight "outlier" schools that improve English and math performance, high school preparation and graduation rates
By: | June 22, 2021
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Students own some of their teachers’ learning at one Washington high school where kids help design professional development programs in diversity, equity and inclusion.

This is just one of initiatives researchers found in a few dozen Washington “outlier” schools where administrators have deployed strategies to remove barriers that have stymied the progress of underrepresented students, says  John Steach, CEO of The Center for Educational Effectiveness.

“These kids in these school systems—when you talk to leaders, to teachers, to parents—they say these students are talented across the board but too often their strengths aren’t being recognized,” says Steach, a co-author of “Characteristics of Positive Outlier Schools: Illuminating the Strengths of American Indian/Alaska Native, Black, Latino/a, and Students Experiencing Poverty.”

In an 18-month study, Steach and his team highlighted common best practices at 38 high-poverty schools where educators have moved the needle on English-language arts and math performance, progress for English learners, readiness for high school and high school course rigor, and graduation rates.

Many of the schools had even fallen into the bottom 5% of state No Child Left Behind rankings.

Here are some of the common strategies these schools use to accelerate student success:

1. Catalyst for change. The most common “catalysts for change” are new superintendent who’s focused on creating a more equitable district and improving achievement significantly. Another catalyst can be a low state ranking that alerts educators to the need to turn things around.

2. Establish a family-like atmosphere. Many of the “outlier” administrators have prioritized recruiting diverse staff members who look more like the student population.

One high school in the heavily Hispanic Yakima Valley tackled a chronic absenteeism problem by hiring a mother from the community to serve as an attendance coach. The woman, who had no formal education herself, took on the role of a paraeducator to work with families to keep students in school. 

“They hired an insider,” Steach says. “Somebody who’s embedded in the community is better at reaching students.”

3.  Establish an equity-based school. This can include reorienting districts and building leadership teams into equity leadership teams that can set a tome for embracing the strengths of diverse students’ cultures.

In such a climate, educators can also empower diverse students to teach others about racism based on their lived experiences.

Academically, outlier schools are ensuring that underrepresented students have equal access to advancement placement, dual credit and other advanced programs. The study identified one majority-Hispanic high school where 75% of students graduate with college credits even though 100% of them live in poverty, Steach says.

4. Sustainability (not the environmental kind). An overarching characteristic among the outlier schools is educators willing to embed these new strategies over the long term.

“A lot of these things seem like common sense but they’re just not common practice,” Steach says.