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Thursday, May 16, 2013

In education, money counts: NH’s top schools often have the lowest amounts of poverty

Danielle Curtis

Money isn’t everything.

It’s a phrase that applies to many situations in life, whether it’s a parent explaining why they won’t be buying those brand-name jeans, or a mentor encouraging a new worker to take that entry-level job they’d love. ...

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Money isn’t everything.

It’s a phrase that applies to many situations in life, whether it’s a parent explaining why they won’t be buying those brand-name jeans, or a mentor encouraging a new worker to take that entry-level job they’d love.

But when it comes to education, does the saying hold true?

It’s a question that has been tossed around for years, by lawmakers trying to create a balanced budget and by educators lobbying for more funding for schools.

Take a look at the annual rankings of the nation’s top high schools, and other similar awards, and you’ll see that money is, at least, important.

“When you’re in a budget debate, the first statement is always, ‘Schools don’t get better by throwing money at them,’ ” said Bill Duncan, of Advancing New Hampshire Public Education. “But they do, actually, they really do.”

Duncan said that while money is by no means the only factor that plays into a school’s success, the financial support a district receives from its taxpayers and the socioeconomic situation of a school’s students factor into the test scores they see, the number of college-bound students they graduate and resources they can use to aid struggling students.

A look at the U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek rankings of the nation’s best high schools supports this idea.

Newsweek named Hollis Brookline High School the best in the state this year, an honor the school has seen for several of the last 10 years. At No. 3 was Souhegan High School in Amherst, coming in behind Durham’s Oyster River High School.

Not far behind, was Bedford High School, which came in sixth. The school also was named the Secondary School of Excellence by the New Hampshire Excellence in Education Awards Program last week.

These schools all have strong standardized test scores, rigorous curriculum, high graduation rates and experienced teaching staffs.

But these high school also have something else in common: very few students that qualify for free and reduced school lunch, a common poverty indicator.

All three of the area schools are in districts with about 5 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced school lunch.

The numbers are low, especially when compared to other local school districts. Nashua, for example, has 41 percent of its students qualifying for a lower-priced lunch, while Merrimack and Hudson have 12 and 16 percent, respectively.

Duncan said that many times, students from low-income families simply do not have the same educational backgrounds as other students upon entering school.

Low-income families also often are led by parents working long hours or more than one job, who may not be home to help with homework or who can’t afford to hire tutors.

All of this, Duncan said, plays a role in a student’s ability to succeed, and a school’s ability to teach them.

“We do a good job in this state, in this nation, of educating well-off kids,” he said. “It’s the low-income kids and, to some extent, the middle-income kids, who are left behind.”

Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad has seen the impact that poverty can have on students’ learning. Students from low-income households, he said, often have more outside stress in their lives, whether its a lack of food at home, a lack of shelter or frequent moves.

They’re more likely to have parents without a formal education, too, or who may not speak English. Those students often do less reading at home and over the summer, creating an academic gap that can grow from year to year.

And while Conrad said it’s clear that any student can learn, and that schools should hold all students to high standards, overcoming the impacts of poverty is not easy.

“Poverty does have an impact,” he said. “And we’ve got to be able to talk about the fact that poverty makes learning more difficult without using it as an excuse.”

The leaders of the state’s so-named top schools don’t necessarily disagree, but said it’s important to remember that money is not the only factor in a school’s, or a student’s, success.

“There is no question that economics plays a role in the experiences that students bring to the classroom,” said Bedford Principal William Hagen. “Those students whose families are well-off typically have more life experiences that they can relate to. That certainly plays a role.”

Students from higher-income families also may have high expectations about going to college, Hagen said.

But, he said he believes Bedford High School’s strengths are its ability to work with all learners, of varying backgrounds, and to work well with a community that supports its schools, financially and in other ways.

“Our expectation for all students is the same,” he said. “Regardless of where they come from, they rise to their best level here. I believe that has a lot to do with what your staff has to bring to the table.

“I think if you’ve got a student working with a good teacher every day, economics plays less of a role in their success.”

Hollis Brookline High School Principal Cindy Matte said support from the community is key to a successful school.

“We’ve got supportive parents that really care about education and are involved in their children’s education,” she said. “We’ve got kids that really want to learn and want to do well. Both communities are very committed to education.”

So what does this discussion mean for education?

Do the numbers show the state should spend more on education, or that schools with a high percentage of low-income students shouldn’t expect to see themselves at the top of a “best school” ranking?

For Duncan, these are hard questions to answer. In the end, he said, it comes down to using money wisely to best serve students.

For one, having a high percentage of low-income students is not an indication of a school’s ability to succeed. Strong educational leadership and teaching can overcome many of the obstacles put in the way of a poor child, he said, and there are examples across the state of low-income schools doing great things for their students and seeing that success in testing scores.

But those schools also receive vital federal Title I funding to help provide extra resources to students in need, Duncan said, about $75 million is distributed across the state each year.

“We can’t be apologizing for stating the obvious, money counts,” he said. “But bad leadership can waste money, the same as it can in any field. And good leadership can take a school further on whatever the fiscal limits are.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).