R-E-S-P-E-C-T Essential in a High Poverty School

Recently, I was preparing for an interview at a school with relatively high rate of low income families (75%). Since my administrative experience is with middle class and wealthy communities, I asked my PLN for some info. Two administrators came to the rescue: Mike Roberts whose answers are in blue and Doug Green whose answers are in green (bios for Mike and Doug are at the end of this post).

  • What are some successful ways you involve parents?

Parent E-mail- I get parents email address at meetings and Open House. I then email the whole school as a whole on Sunday afternoon’s with the upcoming week’s events. For example: picture day, Masquerade Ball, Field Trips, etc. I think another good way is to take a personal interest in all the kids, but especially your at-risk students. I set down with them one on one and make goals. If they reach their goals, I put a post card in the mail telling their parents that I am proud of their achievements.

Even poor parents come to school if their kids are on stage performing or if you have some kind of event that features free food. We had a carnival in the spring and various dances with teachers as DJ’s and myself monitoring the dance floor.

  • Do you have successful alternatives to the standard Principal/Parent Coffee at 9 am?

Most parents are working. I do reading and math nights with minimal turn out. Again email is powerful. I email myself and bcc my parents. This way they don’t know each others’ email address in case they ever want to grind an axe.

Make home visits. Get out in the hood. Ride a bus and see who is at the bus stops. Give kids rides home who are sick or who miss the bus or who misbehave. Be fair and try to get to a point where the kid tells the parent what he did wrong. That is when you can get the parent working with you. Otherwise you will get an endless version of “why you pickin on my kid.” Remind the parent not to beat the kid. Go out of your way for black and hispanic parents. If you do, the word will get out that you are not a racist. Parents will play the race card so you just have to be better and earn their respect.

  • Do you have any ways to counteract the parents’ own bad experiences in school?

Just try and have the most positive school you can have for kids. If their kid gets out of bed wanting to come to school, it will make the parents happy.

See 1 and 2.

  • What, besides money-related items, is the biggest challenge in working with poor students?

Instilling a sense of hope in some of them. They must see that education is the key to breaking this cycle of poverty. 2 weeks ago I started taking my upper grades students to visit college campuses. Just took my 5th grade to Georgia Tech. My 4th grade visits Jacksonville State University next week. Instill Hope.

Parents don’t generally have the academic background to help with learning and they aren’t able to take kids places for various kinds of enrichment. (Museums, libraries, or even trips out of the neighborhood.) Homes have TV but little or no reading material. This is why poor kids seem to go backwards during the summer and rich kids don’t.

  • How do you welcome or induct a new student – assuming your school has a high turnover or churn rate?

Video Morning Announcements are huge. We do these on closed circuit every morning. We recognize students accomplishments, birthdays, new students, etc. We want the whole school clapping when this occurs.

I had about 37% a year. It was vital that I greeted the parents when they registered the kids and started to get to know them. Where you from? What brings you here? What can you tell me about junior. Act happy to see them and don’t act even a little superior. Act interested in what they have to say. Be empathetic. Even poor parents can smell distain a mile away.

  • When you first started at a high poverty school, what were some surprises?

None really. Kids are kids. Poor kids appreciate the things you do for them more than wealthy students. They appreciate the field trips and AR parties. It really means a lot to them. I love being their principal. I’m making a difference.

Kids came to school with emotional problems that steamed from events at home and in the neighborhood. Mommy’s new boy friend was a big negative as it took attention away from the child and he wasn’t dad. The number one abuser was the boy friend. There were always surprises due to unique and crazy situations that came up. It required a lot of problem solving and an excellent sense of humor.

  • Finally, any sage advice that I should know?

Read: “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire” and “There are No Shortcuts” by Rafe Esquith. You have to make it your personal mission statement that the quality of your students’ lives are going improve because they were at your school. Don’t worry about pleasing the central office crowd. Stay totally focused on making a difference. You will find it very rewarding.

Keep your ego out of situations. If a kid or a parent calls you an m f’er, step back, think, and ask what you can do to help. Don’t yell back or show emotion. This will only throw gas on the fire. If a parent comes into your school yelling, let them know they can yell all they want in your office with the door closed. Otherwise they need to leave. You also need to be fearless. Watch some old Clint Eastwood movies and try to walk like he did with the same expression on your face. Don’t dress like a dork. You don’t need to dress in expensive suits. Just pay attention. If apparel isn’t your strong suit, let your wife dress you. I did. After she died from ALS last year I was proud that she knew that I would be able to dress myself. Kids would tell me, “hey Dr. Green, you look cool.” It wasn’t an accident.

It is interesting, but not at all surprising, to see that so much of what both of these gentlemen had to say centered on showing genuine respect.

What have you done to include/engage parents in schools with high levels of poverty? Please leave comments below.

Cross posted at Principal’s Point of View
Image from flickr user http://www.flickr.com/photos/buda_fabiomori/2301780058/ CC

Our Guest Answerers

Mike Roberts

West Georgia Principal,devoted father,husband,Christian. Seize the day! http://ies.carrollcountyschools.com

Douglas Green

Endicott, New York Blogger DrDougGreen.Com – Retired Principal – Former caregiver for wife with Lou Gehrig’s disease http://drdouggreen.com


  1. JM said:

    Some interesting advice, there. I’d have to say I think Mike’s advice might be a bit more helpful in an interview situation. Doug’s comments seem a bit jaded.

    November 4, 2010
    • JM,

      Combining Mike’s buoyancy and Doug’s pragmatism seems to be the most honest approach I could take.

      Thank you for commenting.

      November 9, 2010
  2. Mutual Respect is key when dealing low wealth parents & students. Try to put yourself in their shoes and talk a walk around the block. Most parents & students can detect when your talking down/around them and will respond accordingly.

    November 9, 2010
    • Adriese,

      Thank you for that sound reminder. I try to be respectful to everyone until they earn my disrespect. Then, I try harder.


      November 9, 2010

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