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Building School Communities for Students Living in Deep Poverty

Nurse checklist student at a school health fair

More than 5 million children in the United States—roughly 7% of all American children—are living in deep poverty. Every year, the federal government establishes poverty thresholds for families and individuals. If a family’s annual income is below the poverty threshold, the family is considered to be living in poverty. If a family’s annual income is 50% below the federal poverty threshold, the family is living in deep poverty. Deep poverty is the result of economic and social policies that inhibit the life chances and opportunities of children experiencing material hardship. Children living in deep poverty can be found in every state, and many children living in deeply poor households live in communities of concentrated poverty, where 30% or more of individuals and families live below the poverty line.

While education alone cannot eliminate childhood deep poverty, it is a key component for a comprehensive approach to building an enduring equal-opportunity society.

Families living in deep poverty face material, social, and emotional hardships: They suffer from food shortages, unemployment, unstable housing, inadequate medical care, electrical shutoffs, and, often, isolation. These hardships typically impact Black and Indigenous families more profoundly than white families, due to a long history of discrimination that has deprived Black citizens and Native Americans of property, education, and services.

To meet the learning and social-emotional needs of children living in deep poverty, this report focuses on three strategies that can be enacted in schools:

  1. Address funding adequacy and equity.
  2. Develop community schools and partnerships.
  3. Develop a whole child teaching and learning culture.

While education alone cannot eliminate childhood deep poverty, it is a key component for a comprehensive approach to building an equal-opportunity society.

Deep Poverty–Responsive Schools

This report builds on the work of American educator and scholar Richard Milner and his colleagues, who consider how schools can become “poverty-responsive.” Becoming poverty-responsive requires educators to take three steps:

  1. Shift deficit-based conceptions of students in poverty to those that are asset-based, using strategies that can see and build on students’ strengths.
  2. Develop partnerships with communities to respond to a range of out-of-school issues.
  3. Accept the reality that many students living in poverty are “school dependent,” and that it is important to create schools they can depend on.

Extending these insights, “deep poverty–responsive” schools might result from adequate and equitable funding, community schooling, and a whole child teaching and learning culture that creates an asset-based approach and builds on the strengths of all students. Key to creating deep poverty–responsive schools is acknowledging the root causes of deep poverty, which are historical and structural. Rather than a focus on “fixing” students, it is important to understand the ways in which social structures and school organizations need to be reformed to serve them well.


  1. Adequate and Equitable Funding Supports Student Success

    Recent analyses of data prepared for school equity cases in more than 20 states have found that on every tangible measure—from qualified teachers and reasonable class sizes to adequate textbooks, computers, facilities, and curriculum offerings—schools serving large numbers of students of color and students from low-income families have significantly fewer resources than schools serving more affluent white students. Fair funding has two basic components: a sufficient level of funding for all students and increased funding for high-poverty districts to address the additional cost of educating students in those districts. By this standard, most states do not have fair school finance formulas.

    This is a challenge that has a solution. Newly available data sets and statistical approaches show that reforms creating more adequate and equitable funding have had a direct positive impact on student outcomes and lifelong success. Equity of opportunity is essential for establishing policies that allow all students living in deep poverty to thrive.

  2. Community Schools and Partnerships Promote the Learning and Well-Being of Students From Deep-Poverty Households

    Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to provide an integrated focus on academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement. They are academic and social centers where educators, families, and neighbors come together to support innovative learning and to address the impact of out-of-school factors, such as poverty and racism. Since community schools are associated with positive student outcomes, such as reduced absenteeism, improved academic outcomes, and student reports of more positive school climates, they represent promising opportunities for meeting the needs of students living in deep poverty.

  3. Whole Child Teaching and Learning Cultures Build on Students’ Strengths

    Learning requires secure attachments and affirming relationships. Such an environment reflects a whole child approach to education that seeks to address the distinctive strengths, needs, and interests of students as they engage in learning. Evidence from the science of learning has found that strong relationships and supportive conditions can offset the effects of trauma on learning and behavior and can support growth. Educational success for children living in deep poverty is best achieved when educators know their students and their families in depth.

    Many students living in deep poverty experience trauma. Schools serving students from deeply poor families should develop practices that focus on healthy attachments, understand and address trauma, build on children’s strengths, and access community resources. Creating a supportive school environment involves constructing a safe and caring learning community, with consistent routines that allow students to be well known and well supported in an environment that is culturally responsive and inclusive.

Education alone cannot end deep poverty, but it is an essential ingredient in eliminating childhood poverty and transforming lives. All children, including those who come from deeply poor families, have a right to develop their talents. By educating the whole child in caring, inclusive schools, communities can address the full range of children’s needs, and the trauma related to living in conditions of deep poverty can be mitigated and, possibly, healed.

Building School Communities for Students Living in Deep Poverty by Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.