Poverty is Not a Learning Disability

Poverty is Not a Learning Disability

“The research never suggests that poor children are incapable of learning or that poverty itself should be regarded as a learning disability. Rather, research suggests that poor children encounter obstacles that often adversely affect their development and learning outcomes.” – Dr. Pedro Noguera, Distinguished Professor of Education and Director, Center for the Study of School Transformation, UCLA

Two Schools Five Miles Apart

In a recent post, I shared that I had adopted a high-needs school, Bulkeley High School, in Hartford, Connecticut. What I didn’t say is that I live just a few miles away in the neighboring town of West Hartford. My town is often on the lists as one of America’s best places to live. I enjoy it here. It’s racially and ethnically diverse, at least for a small town in New England. Most of the residents are educated with college degrees, higher than the national average, and are either solidly middle class or affluent. Its median household income is nearly triple that of Hartford, just five miles away. West Hartford’s poverty rate is approximately 7%. The town is known for its eateries and quaint shops, walkable neighborhoods and great schools. In 2013 both of West Hartford’s public high schools (Conard and Hall) were ranked in the top 10 schools in the nation by the US News & World Report.  Conard is currently ranked sixth in the state.


In contrast, there is Hartford, where

Bulkeley is located. The city is mainly comprised of Hispanic and Black residents. One-third of Hartford’s residents live in poverty. Bulkeley is a reflection of the city. Ninety percent of the students are a racial or ethnic minority and 92% are considered economically disadvantaged (on free or reduced lunch). The school graduates nearly 75% of its students compared to Conard High School’s 95% graduation rate.


Wealth. Resources. Expectations.

What are the differences between Bulkeley and Conard? The outcomes for sure, but what differences lead to those outcomes? Wealth, resources, and expectation are just three differences.  First, local property taxes are the largest source of school funding. Think about that. If a student lives in an affluent community like West Hartford where property taxes are higher, his school is better funded than the student who lives five miles away in Hartford. A high school student at Bulkeley, through no fault of his own, will not receive the same quality of education as his counterpart at Conard because he’s poor.


This inequity in funding leads to an imbalance in in-school and out-of-school resources. Without proper funding and support, students in high poverty schools often do not have the books, school supplies, and availability of challenging courses (e.g., AP courses) to achieve their academic potential. The teachers tend to be less experienced in many high-needs schools and more transient than teachers at schools like Conard. Out of school resources are also lacking. For example, there is often limited or no access to after-school programs, tutors, computers, nutrition, and other social services that may be needed. Living in poverty brings a set of hurdles that make academic achievement more difficult.


Presumption of Failure

However imbalanced and difficult the funding and available resources are, perhaps the most disabling is a presumption of failure. In many poor schools across America, failure is normalized. There is almost an expectation that students from schools like Bulkeley will not earn a regular high school diploma. There is a judgment that students coming out of poor neighborhoods and schools are not college-bound or even capable of such academic rigor. This is where Bulkeley is different. On the school’s website, their expectations are explicit. They expect high achievement from their faculty and students. They know that being poor is not a learning disability. Their students have the potential to excel academically and socially. All they need is a system that is fair to them, one that recognizes the obstacles they face and will develop policies, resources, and support to level the educational playing field for them.


The Bulkeley High School community believes that all students can become responsible, independent individuals possessing the academic, social, and civic competencies for the 21st century. We value high academic standards, individualized learning experiences, and specialized programs of study that meet the needs of a diverse student population.

From Bulkeley’s Core Values and Beliefs, bulkeley.hartfordschools.org


The Tangelo Park Program: A Great Experiment

Over 20 years ago, Tangelo Park in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida, was very much like Bulkeley in Hartford, and all other poor schools in low-income urban communities across the U.S. It was impoverished; crime was rampant; its schools were failing. The residents galvanized to “take back” their neighborhood. At the same time, Harris Rosen, an Orlando hotelier, was busy assessing the barriers to school and life success. He met with an official from the Orlando Public Schools and then-principal of Dr. Phillips High School in Tangelo Park. The program they agreed to implement, the Tangelo Park Program (TPP) would radically change the trajectory of the students’ futures and the future of the community.


Together, Rosen and the school officials created a program with three main components:

  1. Promise scholarships: guaranteed scholarships to Dr. Phillips High School students from a designed neighborhood who are accepted to a state university, community college or vocational school.
  2. Tangelo Park Two-Three-Four-Year-Old Program: an early childhood education program designed to prepare children for kindergarten.
  3. Parent training and supports: program and resources that help parents to be full partners in their child’s education from birth through high school.


Program Success

The results of the TPP are beyond what anyone would have imagined 20-plus years ago.

“Twenty-one years later, with an infusion of $11 million of Mr. Rosen’s money so far, Tangelo Park is a striking success story. Nearly all of its seniors graduate from high school, and most go on to college on full scholarships Mr. Rosen has financed. . . . “We are sitting on gold here now,” said Jeroline G. Adkinson, president of the Tangelo Park Civic Association and a longtime resident of the mostly black community. “It has helped change the community.” (excerpt from TPP case study on Broader, Bolder Approach (BBA) website, boldapproach.org)

In 2008, the Tangelo Park Elementary School ranked fourth in learning gains in all of Central Florida. In 2009, the school received the Florida State Literacy Leader Award.

Between 2005 and 2012, at least 90% of Tangelo Park’s high school students earned a regular diploma and in 2011 and 2012, the graduation rate was 100%.

Of the students who go on to attend a four-year postsecondary school, 78% of them graduate with their bachelor’s degree, a success rate beyond the national average. Others go on to achieve advanced degrees.


There are more successes to list than I will share here, but please read the full TPP case study. One of the students shared what the program has meant to her:

It caused me to really focus. I took honors classes, became highly involved in extracurriculars [at Dr. Phillips High School] . . . It was a really big deal for me. 
– Shanathan Crayton, 1999 high school graduate, who got a bachelor’s degree at Florida A&M University, completed two master’s degrees, and is now a grant coordinator for Miami Dade College

Harris Rosen, a wealthy hotelier and child of immigrant parents empathized with the barriers confronting the students and families in Tangelo Park. And he did something about it.

Poverty Should Not Be a Death Sentence

With the success of Tangelo Park, Rosen has now expanded the program to Orlando’s Parramore neighborhood. Based on his belief that poverty should not be a death sentence for young, enterprising minds, he invested in the lives of those students and the payoff is for all of us to reap.


After all of these years working with the Tangelo Park community, we are absolutely convinced that there is as much intellectual talent in our underserved neighborhoods as there is in any of our more affluent gated communities. If that is true, then as the United Negro College Fund suggests, we are sadly wasting millions of minds in our nation, which we simply cannot afford to do.

– Harris Rosen, president and CEO, Rosen Hotels and Resorts and founder, Tangelo Park Program (quote cited in the TPP case study)


What to Do

Not all of us are wealthy like Harris Rosen, but all of us can do our part to lift our children from the cycle of poverty by advocating and working toward more equity in school funding. We can call for more resources for early childhood education programs and parent training and support. And, we can expect great things from our children. Setting high standards for them and believing they have the capacity to succeed is the starting point for their bright future. Poverty is not a learning disability.


When we know better, we do better. 

© 2018, Tonya Harris Cornileus

All Rights Reserved.

One Comment

  1. EL. Harris
    Apr 08, 2018

    Inspiring message Dr. T. Expectation and investment, financially and personally are the keys to this dilemma. Learning and heeding these lessons will go far in eliminating these inequities. My thoughts, Every child wants to be an “A” student.


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