VIP Focus: The Elephant in the Room

DashBoard, Aug. 31, 2016

Submitted by Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D., Founder, aha! Process

Have you ever said … “We do a good job at school and then they go home?”

Have you ever said …“I wish we could do more to involve our parents from poverty?”

Have you ever said … “How can we function if the state keeps cutting our funds?”

Have you ever said ... “If it weren’t for that section of town or that neighborhood, we would have great test scores?”

In spite of the big push for high achievement in recent years and the rigid guidelines that came from the federal government, test scores in U.S. public schools have not significantly improved over time. Yet districts and boards have been chastised for the lack of progress.

There is, however, an elephant in the room that few want to discuss—high-poverty neighborhood effects. The thinking is that we will ignore them because there’s nothing we can do about them. Not true.

And there is a coming storm!

Furthermore, one of the issues with high-poverty neighborhoods is early puberty.

If you go through puberty two years or more ahead of your peers, the likelihood of completing high school is low. And you go through puberty earlier if you are in a very stressful environment (which poverty is), if there is no father in the household and there is violence in the household1.

The average adolescent has 1,150 waking hours in school a year and 4,700 waking hours outside of school a year2. When you hit adolescence, your peers become even more important to you. And then the issue in a nutshell is this—there often are no adults to buffer the impact or the effects of the neighborhood. Schools can make a significant impact on young people, but of course, they cannot do everything—not enough time or money and simply the reality of multiple influences on young people’s lives, of which school personnel are only one.

But there is a solution, and we have done it with 40,000 adults in poverty. The classes are called Getting Ahead in a Just-Gettin’-By World.3

I will be speaking at the MASB Annual Leadership Conference in November. I will present data and solutions that can be used by your board to begin addressing the neighborhood-effects issue. Parents from poverty are usually not going to engage the way more resourced parents do. But most parents from poverty have smart phones and they can create a political firestorm using social media.

Parents from poverty are problemsolvers. They have to be because their resources are so thin. They also will fight on behalf of their children. Many parents from poverty are more than willing to become political partners with the district. This will be a necessity if public schools are to survive—given the fact that only 40% of households have school-age children and more than 50% of school-age children come from low-income households.

It can be done.


1 Berger, K.S. (2011). The developing person through the life span (8th ed.). New York, NY: Worth.

1 Crosnoe, R., & Johnson, M. K. (2011). Research on adolescence in the 21st century. Annual Review of Sociology, 37, 439–460. doi:10.1146/annurev-soc-081309-150008.

1 Payne, R.K. (2013). Achievement for all: Keys to educating middle grade students in poverty. Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.

2 Berliner, D.C. (2009). Poverty and potential: Out-of-school factors and school success. National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from

3 Devol, P. E. (2013). Getting ahead in a just-gettin’-by world: Building your resources for a better life. Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the Founder of aha! Process and is an author, speaker and career educator. She will be speaking on Friday, Nov. 11 at the 2016 MASB Annual Leadership Conference in Detroit. She can be reached at

VIP Focus articles are company-sponsored advertisements and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of MASB. It’s intended to provide Very Important Partners with a space to share information of value to you and your district.

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