Time for suburban schools to shift to a new definition of ‘demanding families’

There’s a myth that persists in education for both parents and teachers: That heading to suburban schools somehow insulates you from hardship, instability and academic failure.

So, not only are suburban schools now dealing with higher rates of poverty, cultural barriers and family disconnection, their staffs and school communities are not well equipped to handle this shift.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic:

The number of people living in poverty in the suburbs also exceeds that in urban areas. In testimony earlier this month before a House of Representatives Ways and Means subcommittee, Elizabeth Kneebone, the co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, offered a stark look at the figures: In 2015, for the first time on record, suburbs surpassed cities in the number of residents living in poverty—16 million in the suburbs, outpacing cities by more than 3 million people.

For youth and families, economic hardship and a lack of English proficiency can make navigating the school bureaucracy especially daunting, hindering parent engagement and students’ education.

Yes, poverty is more concentrated in urban systems, and the disinvestment in big city schools is more pervasive and entrenched. But one big advantage urban schools have over suburban ones is they know how to deal. They hire teachers who come in, eyes wide open. They probably have some training in cultural competence, alternative discipline, second languages and classroom management strategies. They know how to do more with less. They are resourceful when it comes to tapping philanthropic partnerships.

But the learning curve has proven especially steep in some suburban schools, because many teachers land in these school districts with the mindset that they’ve “paid their dues” and “done a tour of duty” in a tough urban school and now they are heading to easy street because the salaries are higher and they figure the challenging families will be the overzealous helicopter parents who micromanage every academic decision.

And those helicopter parents aren’t making the shift to a new reality either. Some parents continue to hoard the best opportunities for their children, demanding homogenous class groupings and access to “gifted programs” so their children don’t have to be touched by children with higher academic demands and more complicated families.

Here’s the other part of the problem: The suburbs don’t have broad access to the kind of wraparound programs and philanthropic support that fill in all those gaps that schools can’t fill.

Suburban districts nationally are struggling to adjust to the new realities in schools. A recent report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), “Suburban Schools: The Unrecognized Frontier in Public Education,” concludes that large numbers of English-language learners, student refugees, and students whose families struggle with poverty require suburban school districts to adapt and shift resources.


“Suburbs essentially need to … become more nimble and responsive in the face of the new lives that are living there,” said Jordan Posamentier, the report’s co-author and the deputy policy director at CRPE, an education research group affiliated with the University of Washington. “The educational infrastructure in suburbs is playing catch-up in a lot of parts of the country.”

Good intentions are not enough to fix this. Suburban schools need to hire to this burgeoning need and they need to re-train for a new reality. National foundations need to re-imagine what high-need school districts look like. Nostalgia for the white picket fences isn’t cutting it anymore.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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