Closing the academic achievement gap through community involvement

Embrace the Education System as Community Support

It is folly to believe that the solution to better academic achievement lies solely within the education system.  Certainly, it is assessments and statistics measured in the classroom that lays bare the heavy realities of the ever widening academic achievement gap.  But that gap is not the product of the education system and its failures alone.  The effects of poverty on student performance goes beyond what can be shown through standardized tests.

"Having Kids Makes You More Likely to Be Evicted" by Edwin Rios (2016) Retrieved from
“Having Kids Makes You More Likely to Be Evicted” by Edwin Rios (2016) Retrieved from

By the time impoverished children enter the school system, they are often already behind.  The poor are less likely to read to their children (NEA, 2002; Coley, 2013), less likely to use daycare services or preschool that involve learning activities throughout the day (Levy, et al., 2012; Coley, 2013), and expose their children to half as many words as their higher income counterparts (Hart & Risley, 2011).

Depicts the correlation between poverty, healthy food accessibility, and health issues in the US. Retrieved from
Depicts the correlation between poverty, healthy food accessibility, and health issues in the US. Retrieved from

Children of low income families are more likely to experience food insecurity, unstable living environments, and poor healthcare.  Chronic absenteeism, poor health, hunger, and repeated relocation all reduce the effectiveness of schools no matter how progressive their teaching methods.

Note 21% of households with children in the US are food insecure. Retrieved from
Note 21% of households with children in the US are food insecure. Retrieved from

Tackle poverty on a community level, however, by providing healthy food sources, access to community learning centers, and affordable healthcare options in addition to the efforts of local schools, the academic achievement gap is likely to narrow.

Grass Roots Activism: Help the community, help the children

Self-identifying as a guerrilla gardener in his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, Ron Finley noticed the correlation between the chronic health issues of his neighbors and the lack of healthy food resources in his neighborhood.  Referred to as a food desert, urban and low-income neighborhoods are typically void of supermarkets where fresh foods are sold.  Fast food and convenient stores are typically the only source of food for those living in low-income neighborhoods.  Residents are even more trapped when they don’t have access to reliable transportation in order to find a healthier alternative in more affluent areas.  Finley made a decision to change this reality by using the strip of city land in front of his home for a vegetable garden.  After some grappling with legalities, Finley prevailed bringing fresh vegetables to his neighborhood.  But what’s more, Finley inspired his neighbors to grow their own food and contribute to community gardens.

While Finley set out to reduce the chronic health issues in his neighborhood, he discovered his gardening and community activism resolved much more than just that.  Finley discovered this small action inspired a brighter outlook and an active interest in improving the standard of living among his neighborhood residents.

Like Finley, Geoffrey Canada tackled the effects of poverty through community activism.  Canada was aware of the “kids who made it out” of low income neighborhoods and the traps of the cycle of poverty through the support of philanthropic outsiders.  But Canada felt that sort of outreach only touched the surface of the problem and never really solved the chronic issues of the impoverished urban neighborhoods.  He felt that rather than taking a few kids out of the neighborhood, it would be far more effective if resources were brought in to serve the whole community.  Canada established the Harlem Children’s Zone – a 60 block area of the inner city neighborhood, “an area with about 6,500 children, more than 60 percent of whom live below the poverty line and three-quarters of whom score below grade level on statewide reading and math tests”(Tough, 2004) – as his laboratory for tackling poverty and its effects at the community level.  The Harlem Children’s Zone has seen amazing results in the improvement of families lives and the academic achievement of the resident children.

Closing the gap of academic achievement cannot be a concern reserved for this nation’s schools or educators.  The problems that lead to poor achievement stem from unresolved and chronic issues of poverty in our communities.  Help the community, help the children.



60 Minutes: The Harlem children’s zone. CBS News Retrieved from

Coley, R. J. (2013). Poverty and education: Finding the way forward. Retrieved from

Finley, R. (2013, March 6). A guerilla gardener in south central LA. Retrieved from

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2011). The early catastrophe. Retrieved from

Hochman, D. (2014, August 9). Urban gardening: An Appleseed with attitude.Fashion & Style. Retrieved from

Levy, B., Magnuson, K., Monea, E., & Owen, S. (2012). Starting School at a disadvantage: the School Readiness of Poor Children. Center of Children and Families at BROOKINGS. Retrieved from

Matson, J. (2016). Food deserts leave many Americans high and dry. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from

National Education Association (2002). Facts about children’s literacy. Retrieved from

Rios, E. (2016, March 1). Having kids makes you more likely to be evicted. Retrieved March 31, 2016, from

Siegel, L. (2013, June 10). Disability linked to food insecurity Retrieved from

Tough, P. (2004, June 20). The Harlem project. New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from


Author: Jane Hoff

Middle School Librarian and Media Technician Guest Teacher, K - 12 BA, Sociocultural Anthropology, the University of Chicago, 1995 Graduate Student, Master of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University, CA

One thought on “Closing the academic achievement gap through community involvement”

  1. This post brings up a good point. There is only so much help a student can receive at school. Ideally, a student would spend the majority of their day in the classroom immersed in creative, interactive, fair learning activities. However, we all know that isn’t the case. Like you mention above, students living in poverty are more likely to have a higher absentee rate. Combine that with an outside environment in which the main concern is survival and not education, and the child will just continue to fall further and further behind. We all need to work together as a community to ensure children living in poverty have a fighting chance. In addition, if we can help the families of these students (the parents, guardians, etc.) that only further improves the lives of our students.


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