by Anita Tijerina Revilla, MA, and Yvette De La Garza Sweeney • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 1997

Current research on the performance of low-income schools has not only served to dispel the myth that low income equals low academic achievement, it has also proven that when the certain schoolwide strategies are implemented all schools and all children can be high performing. In this article, the results of three major studies are summarized and combined into an attached table that highlights the five major factors that created success at these campuses. The results of the studies can provide ideas for school administrators and staff, particularly in schools that are in the process of developing school improvement plans and for low-income schools with low academic achievement.

Students in low-income schools often deal with obstacles in the school environment that stem from cultural and power dynamics. Antonia Darder, author of Culture and Power, states:

    [Bicultural students] must contend with (1) two cultural systems whose values are very often in direct conflict and (2) a set of sociopolitical and historical forces dissimilar to those of mainstream-students and the educational institutions that bicultural students must attend (Darder, 1991).

For example, most methods of academic assessment of students in U.S. classrooms are rooted in a middle-class model based on middle-class values. Thus, students who have learning styles, communication skills or home environments that are dissimilar to this middle-class model are believed to be disadvantaged or at-risk primarily because they are different. Darder advocates cultural democracy in the classroom, a concept she defines as follows:

The right of individuals to be educated in their own language and learning style and the right to maintain a bicultural identity – that is, to retain an identification with their culture of origin while integrating, in a constructive manner, the institutional values of the dominant culture (Darder, 1991).

The same should be true for the parents of these students. If schools and teachers expect parents to be involved in the schooling process, they must respect and encourage the parents to maintain their own cultural values and practices and to utilize them as they come into contact with the school environment. Otherwise, students often begin to reject the authority and knowledge of their parents, resulting in lessened parental involvement and the devaluation of the home as a learning environment.

For example, in 1982 Richard Rodriguez wrote of his embarrassment as a “scholarship boy.” He wrote:

‘Your parents must be so proud of you.’ People began to say that to me by about the time I was in sixth grade. Shyly, I’d smile, never betraying my sense of the irony: I was not proud of my mother and father. I was embarrassed by their lack of education. It was not that I ever thought that they were stupid, though stupidly I took for granted their enormous native intelligence. Simply what mattered to me was that they were not like my teachers (Rodriguez, 1982).

Rodriguez and others have experienced great shame because of the fact that schools often do not value each child’s home language and culture. It is up to the educator, the parent and society to assure children that their bicultural knowledge and existence is regarded positively, not shamefully. Therefore, parental involvement and schoolwide inclusivity depends on mutual respect on the part of the student, the parents and the school personnel.

A study by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs, identifies several factors that account for successful schoolwide programs for low-income students (Charles A. Dana Center, 1997). One of the key indicators of success found was the “sense of family” created in the school environment. The researchers reported:

Beyond the inclusivity evidenced by the schools, [they] observed a powerful sense of family. Not only were students, parents and all school personnel included as a part of the team, they were also included as part of the school family (Charles A. Dana Center, 1997).

According to the Dana Center study, it was exactly that type of mutual respect that aided the success of several low-income schools in Texas. The most common traits of the high performing, low-income schools are related to creating a sense of family.

The schools examined in the Dana Center study achieved state recognition for high performance while having a high percentage of low-income students. These schools, by example, showed that low income does not equate with low performance. On the contrary, students at these schools, who were highly valued and respected in the classroom regardless of their economic background or academic preparation, proved to be high achievers.

Project Pathways was a statewide collaborative formulated in 1993 between the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA); the Center for Success and Learning (CSL); the Texas Association for Supervision, Curriculum and Development (TASCD); and Educational Services Centers I, IV, X and XX, funded by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), designed to address the needs of the students at the secondary level who do not pass the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test (Adame-Reyna, 1993).

IDRA created seven Project Pathways training sessions emphasizing strategies that better prepare minority students to be successful on the TAAS test.

To inform the development of the Project Pathways program, IDRA set out to identify the characteristics and needs of students and schools with poor TAAS performance by studying diverse school districts (rural and urban, small and large, high and low minority student enrollment, high and low performance on the TAAS) from four regional education areas.

IDRA published the study, entitled Project Pathways: Programs That Work, that found that state-recognized high performing campuses share several characteristics that have resulted in improved TAAS test achievement (IDRA, 1993). The critical elements outlined in the study include the following:

  • solid and supportive administrative leadership;
  • positive expectations of students;
  • strong, integrated curriculum;
  • shared decision making; and
  • campus-wide responsibility for teaching and success (see box below).

Many of the schools that had high TAAS performance also had high percentages of minority and low-income students. Contrary to the widespread belief that these students could not achieve high test scores, the statistics showed that the high TAAS performance at these campuses included all students. This study once again documented that the value of a student must be held high if high achievement is desired because any child who is devalued in the classroom becomes a child “at-risk.”

A study by Beverly McLeod funded by the US Department of Education provides a basis for understanding various types of reforms that provide limited-English-proficient (LEP) students with “equal access to an academic program of high quality” (McLeod, 1996). The study focused on various areas of educational reform such as curriculum, parental and community involvement, and student diversity. Eight primary and secondary schools with high percentages of LEP students participated in the study. Each of the schools involved developed and implemented several methods for achieving positive academic outcomes in which every student received an equal opportunity for academic success.

The five major factors practiced by the high performing schools that contributed to the high achievement of low-income and/or linguistic and cultural minority students include the following:

  • Created and nurtured a familial environment – A non-threatening school environment was created. The entire school staff was involved in assuring individual success while also maintaining a sense of family.
  • Educated the whole child – Each individual child’s academic success was important. No child could be left behind. Respect, support, encouragement and the child’s total development were all priorities.
  • Celebrated cultural and linguistic diversity – Sensitivity to diversity was demonstrated within the school population and community. Accommodations were made to ensure two-way communication among students, parents and school personnel.
  • Assumed responsibility for teaching – Teachers, administrators and school districts exhibited active participation in students’ success. Adopted techniques were continually assessed by a reflective practitioner. Students were given the opportunity to become actively involved in the learning process.
  • Communicated and involved parents – Parents were valued and involved in the educational process. They were respected and appreciated, and they were actively encouraged to be a part of the school family.

In summary, there is a myth that has inappropriately been attached to low-income students; that is, low-income students cannot reach high academic standards. The three studies summarized in this article serve as concrete examples that dispel the myth. Low-income and minority students have demonstrated high performance in schools, yet there are several responsibilities that school administrators and staff must accept in order to ensure that success. The factors listed in this article are techniques that work. School families, highly valued students and parents, and strong, supportive administrations do create success.

High Performing School: Factors For Success

Factor Examples Cited by Research and Experience
Create and nurture a familial environment
  • Students were given respect.
  • Counselors, nurses, social workers and family liaisons worked together to ensure that students’ basic needs were met.
  • The sense of family was all inclusive among students, parents and school staff. Each staff member was highly valued as an individual.
  • Everyone who came in contact with students participated in ensuring their success.
  • Everyone on the campus was involved in the students’ learning process.
  • The school was considered to be a family more than just a system for learning.
  • School staff ensured that students knew they were held in high esteem.
Educate the “whole” child
  • Each teacher’s priority was the student’s total development, not only performance on standardized tests.
  • Emphasis was placed on ensuring positive academic achievement for every child.
  • Failure was not tolerated, expectations were not lowered.
  • Emphasis was placed on positive achievement rather than negative.
  • Teachers avoided stigmatizing students and categorizing or labeling them.
  • All accomplishments were praised and recognized.
  • Students were allowed to become actively involved in decisions relating to their school experiences.
  • Strategies such as cooperative learning and peer­to­peer tutoring allowed students to take possession of their learning.
Celebrate cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Cultural and linguistic diversity was integrated into school activities and curriculum.
  • Teachers and staff provided a school environment similar to that of the local community.
  • The home culture of minority families was respected and valued.
  • Students were encouraged to use their native language in order to communicate effectively.
  • Teachers utilized students’ native language to help them develop proficiency in the new language.
Assume responsibility for teaching
  • Teachers created their own assessment tools to determine which methods would contribute positively to higher academic achievement.
  • Academic success for every child was the highest priority when teachers developed lessons.
  • Curriculum was aligned with standardized test objectives.
  • Teachers experimented with creative activities in an effort to improve student success while maintaining high expectations.
  • Teachers practiced team teaching.
  • Once particular goals were achieved, higher goals were defined.
  • A stable environment was provided through continuum of classes.
  • Limited­English­proficient (LEP) students were not segregated from native English­speaking students.
  • Students practiced literacy development activities.
  • Schools created a program that assists LEP students with language acquisition.
  • Schools had a strong, integrated curriculum.
  • Administrative leadership was strong.
  • Campuses practiced shared decision making.
  • Schools advocated high morale and schoolwide support for students’ academic achievement.
  • Schools provided master teacher tutoring and reading, writing and math labs.
Communicate and involve parents
  • Parents were highly valued members of the school environment, and they knew they were an important part of the school family.
  • It was important to school staff that parents were able to communicate their views and concerns. Educational jargon was avoided and parents were not spoken to in condescending ways.
  • Teachers avoided forcing parents into traditional parenting roles.
  • Outreach to parents was extensive, ensuring high parent participation.
  • Schools maintained open door policies and created a welcoming environment, especially for parents.
  • The cultural and linguistic diversity of office staff enabled LEP parents to feel more comfortable and a part of the team.
Developed by IDRA from research conducted by IDRA, the Charles A. Dana Center, at the University of Texas at Austin, and Beverly McLead.


Adame-Reyna, Ninta. “Project Pathways: Innovative Teaching Strategies for Improving LEP Students’ TAAS Scores,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 1993), pg. 3.

Cantu, Linda. “TAAS Math Performance,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 1996).

Charles A. Dana Center. Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs (Austin, Texas: Charles A. Dana Center, University of Texas at Austin, February 1997).

Darder, Antonia. Culture and Power in the Classroom: A Critical Foundation for Bicultural Education (Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1991).

Intercultural Development Research Association, Project Pathways: Programs That Work (San Antonio, Texas: IDRA, 1993).

McLeod, Beverly. Educating Students from Diverse Linguistic and Cultural Backgrounds (Santa Cruz, Calif.: The Bilingual Research Center, Internet posting, 1996).

Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory: The Autobiography of Richard Rodriguez (New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1982).

Anita Tijerina Revilla is an education assistant in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Yvette De La Garza Sweeney is a student in the division of bilingual/bicultural studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Comments and questions may be sent to them via e-mail at

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 1997 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.]