• by María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2013 •

Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D.As a nation, we often seem to talk about poverty as if it impacts a small number of people. But today, close to 50 million Americans are poor. And for the first time in more than 40 years, low-income children “constitute a majority of public school students in the U.S. South” (Suitts, 2008).

Education has been and is a way out of poverty, especially for minority students. Students with a college degree have fared far better (even during the last recession) than those who either left school before graduation or earned only a high school diploma.

Yet we continue to miss the mark of preparing all students well – and this disproportionately impacts low-income and minority students. The Economist summarizes: “America is one of only three advanced countries which spends less on the education of poorer children than richer ones” (Minton-Bedoes, 2012). Even as a child’s zip code continues to play such a big role in that child’s future, education has become more essential.

By providing high quality education for all students, we can leverage opportunity, if we know how to focus our efforts. The good news is that we do know how.

In a recent issue of Time, former President Bill Clinton lays out a case for optimism in tumultuous times based on learnings from the Global Initiative (2012). I believe that a case for optimism can also be made at the intersection of education and poverty for at least five reasons: education is a stated priority; educators are showing what works; technology connects us, and courage can be catching; many views of poverty aren’t true; and contributions of young people are inspiring.

Education is a Stated Priority

Many people around the country and around the world care deeply about education. Even at the height of the last recession in the United States, while jobs and the recovery of our economy were top priorities for Americans, nearly seven in 10 Americans say that education should be a top priority for Congress and the President (Pew Research Center, 2012).

Youth are making education a priority and putting their futures on the line for a quality education. From Langley Park, Maryland, to Maricopa County, Arizona, thousands of young people – brought to this country as children but whose families are undocumented – have risked detention and deportation to speak out about their dream to stay in school and become citizens. Youth are risking arrest and deportation for that dream.

And young people across the world are risking their lives. At 14, Malala Yousafzai has faced death for speaking out for the most fundamental access to education for girls in Pakistan.

So while not all ideas for promoting equity are effective, more and more people recognize why we must keep at it, understanding that quality and equitable education is the civil rights issue of our time.

Educators are Showing

What Works

When it comes to transforming education, there is no need for wild guesses: educators are already showing what works. If you look at all of the best, high-impact innovations, none involve stop-gap, slap-dash or silver bullet solutions. Rather, they all have demonstrated a set of key features:

  • they value youth of all backgrounds, without exception,
  • they are built around sound information and metrics,
  • they engage families and community members as key partners in academic success, and
  • they assure that students have access to quality teaching and a high quality curriculum.

Based on empirical evidence – and our 40 years’ of experience in the field – IDRA developed a change model that we call the Quality Schools Action Framework™ (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). The model is featured in the book, Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™. The framework shapes an online data tool called OurSchool 2.0. This data portal helps schools and communities assess whether or not they are on track and what they must do to improve conditions for all students at in their own  schools.

Here is just one example of the power of this kind of comprehensive approach from a school district serving a high poverty community in South Texas. Looking at dropout data, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district found out that 40 percent of students dropping out of PSJA were doing so in their senior year. Under Superintendent Dr. Daniel King’s leadership, the district undertook a plan to bring students back to school by knocking on doors and talking to parents. Before doing so, though, the district created the College, Career and Technology Academy in partnership with South Texas College. The students were then encouraged to come back – not to the same schools and conditions that had them drop out in the first place, but rather to come back and finish high school and at the same time begin college coursework. Many did.

The district has reduced its dropout rate by 75 percent in two years, and PSJA has become a leader in connecting high school students to college with more than 1,500 students participating in dual college credit courses during the last school year.

PSJA is on the U.S.-Mexico border. It is 99 percent Latino. And it is extremely poor, serving colonias in Texas. But you notice that there is no deficit thinking and no excuses in their approach. No “students cannot learn” or “parents don’t care” or “they don’t speak English” or “we can’t do it, we have too many minorities,” or “they’re not college material.”

Instead, at PSJA you find thoughtful, data-based, coherent plans that connect K-12 with higher education and community to improve educational opportunities for all children.

Technology Connects Us, and Courage Can Be Catching

Social media and new information technologies are no panacea. People around the world still wake up hungry, in poverty, at war. But there can be no doubt that new technologies – and new uses of existing technologies – are dramatically changing our sense of connection with one another and our sense of the possible.

The emergence of social networking and crowdsourcing initiatives in philanthropy, for example, are demonstrating some ways people are developing muscle around these new capabilities to benefit society. Examples include Kiva, Kickstarter and the Knight Foundation’s Knight News Challenge.

There also is reason for optimism in education because many are taking up these same technologies to promote equal educational opportunity. IDRA’s Transitions to Teaching projects are funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Through these we partner with universities across Texas to train and place highly qualified, bilingual teachers in mathematics, science and bilingual education in high need classrooms. We have launched an online statewide network for teachers to share curricula and best practices.

Through our educator network for example, we have been able to share widely the story of how Roland Toscano, a principal at East Central High School in San Antonio, worked to assure that under-served students at his school were given access to great teaching, excellent curriculum and strong support systems, strengthened by effective communication with parents. Those students have excelled beyond anyone’s expectations. With these learnings, this high school has developed a college-going culture for all of its students rather than for a select few.

Technologies connect us, and courage can be catching.

Many Views of Poverty Aren’t True

The Salvation Army found that, while an overwhelming majority of Americans believe people living in poverty deserve a helping hand, another 27 percent believe that laziness is a root cause of poverty (2008).

If such destructive beliefs about poverty like the laziness claim were true, there would be reason for pessimism. But the truth is, stereotypes are just that – stereotypes.

Let’s look, for example, at the recently much-maligned “47 percent” for being our nation’s “takers.” According to The Economist, of these: “Over half have jobs and pay payroll taxes but earn too little to be subject to income tax as well. Another 20 percent are retired. Only 8 percent of households pay no federal tax at all, usually because their members are students, disabled or unemployed…” (Minton-Bedoes, 2012)

Then there’s the myth that children growing up in poverty lack the native intelligence to succeed. It’s a myth shattered by children themselves. One recent example: 11-year-old Paloma Noyola Martínez, a student at José Urbina López elementary school, lives in the community surrounding the Matamoros garbage dump and earned a 921 on Mexico’s national academic achievement test – the highest score in the country. Martínez is among many children in the poorest parts of Matamoros who achieved the top test scores in the state (Brundage, 2012).

Contributions of Young People are Inspiring

The leadership and contributions of young people themselves give us reason for optimism. In the United States and in many countries around the world, the poorest students and racial-ethnic minority students are lost from schools before graduation at alarming rates.

The dropout problem is severe and longstanding, but we know that students dropping out is not a fact of nature. Failing students is not a reality carved in stone. IDRA knew this in 1984 when we first began the Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program. Over the last 28 years, the program has demonstrated that school transformation is possible in various social and economic contexts. The program works by putting the principle of valuing youth into practice.

Young people (pre-teens and adolescents) who are at risk of dropping out are selected to serve as tutors for younger children. As tutors, youth are provided academic support and the chance to create a strong connection with an adult who cares about them and their future at school. In countless interviews, Coca-Cola Valued Youth tell us that being chosen as a tutor was one of the first times they were seen as having something to contribute to their school. The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program demonstrates the power of valuing students.

The Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program has benefited more than 128,000 children in the United States, Puerto Rico, England and Brazil since its founding by IDRA in San Antonio in 1984. It has positively impacted the lives of more than half a million children, families and educators. Through service, youth are valued. In being valued and supported, they begin to fashion a new vision of themselves and their future. Most importantly, the program works: 98 percent of youth who serve as tutors have stayed in school.

Optimism, knowledge and committed action can and do work for both economic prosperity and opportunity. When you add optimism to leadership to the right kind of investments, even the small changes that begin in a child’s life, a family, school, a city, and a region, can take on very big problems and make a major difference for all our children.

High quality education and economic prosperity depend on the right priorities, proven practices, courageous connections, debunked myths and valuing young people.


Brundage, J. “Mexico’s Highest Math Score Achieved by 11-year old Girl Living in The Dump,” Mexico Voices (September 21, 2012).

Clinton, B. “The Case for Optimism,” Time (October 1, 2012).

Minton-Bedoes, Z. “Special Report: The World Economy – For richer, for poorer,” The Economist (October 13, 2012).

Pew Research Center. Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping: Tough Stance on Iran Endorsed, online (January 23, 2012).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C. Goodman (eds). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework™ (Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Salvation Army. Perceptions of Poverty: The Salvation Army’s Report to America (May 2012).

Suitts, S. Crisis of the New Majority: Low-Income Students in the South’s Public Schools (Southern Education Foundation, April 16, 2008).

María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, Ph.D., is IDRA’s president and CEO. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at feedback@idra.org.

[©2013, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2013 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]