• by Kristin E. Grayson, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2012 •Kristin Grayson, M.Ed.

While there is a lot of research that correlates students from low-income families with low levels of academic achievement, there also are examples of students who break this pattern and achieve at high levels despite their circumstances. What is it that makes a difference? What does research show needs to happen to provide quality education to low-income students?

IDRA has put forth the Quality Schools Action Framework™, which takes into account the many facets required at the system level for student success (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010). These components are in line with what is available in the current scholarly research base. Some examples follow.

Silins & Milford (2008) describe a school environment that supports low-income student success as one where there are professional relationships that promote trust and cooperation. Teachers and students are supported by the school’s capacity for growth and success. Both are treated with respect and are involved in accomplishing goals of the school and of the community. The organizational paradigm shifts in this type of environment, and teacher leadership extends beyond the classroom, and benefits the students.

Quality student-teacher interactions and smaller class sizes (Merritt, et al., 2011) also are pinpointed as having significant effects on student achievement of low-income students. Findings from these and other studies align with IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework school system indicators of student engagement and teaching quality.

Henderson & Mapp (2002) synthesized research showing that families of all cultural backgrounds, education and income levels can and often do have a positive influence on their children’s learning. Other research found that organized initiatives to build parent and community leadership aimed at improving low-performing schools are leading to promising results in low-income urban areas and the rural South. To be most effective, family and community involvement efforts should be linked to student learning and must engage diverse families recognizing cultural and class differences, addressing needs and building on strengths. They must embrace a philosophy of partnership where power is shared. This guide and other new research align with IDRA’s innovative approach to parent involvement and community engagement conveyed in IDRA’s framework.

In a survey of 50 college students (Martinez, 2011), who had received the Ron Brown Scholarship for high-need students, including those from low-income families, six themes emerged as contributors to their literary achievement. The themes expressed what the students believed helped them achieve in public schools and then in college. These themes were parents/caregivers, mentors, public and school libraries, Internet, media (television and movies), and extracurricular literacy-related activities, such as debate clubs. These themes also coincide with indicators in IDRA’s Quality Schools Action Framework, especially within the school system indicators.

Some school districts in the country have turned to specialized magnet programs that provide enriching and/or integrated activities (music, foreign language, the arts, etc.) into the curriculum as a way to engage students and build complex cognitive skills that support academic achievement in the core curriculum (Gullatt, 2008). This exemplifies the school system indicators of student engagement, access to quality curriculum, and teaching quality.

IDRA, working in many capacities with many public school districts across the country, also has observed and contributed to individual student and school success, regardless of socio-economic status. One example is the IDRA Coca-Cola Valued Youth Program, a cross-age tutoring program. This dropout prevention program works by identifying middle high and high school students who are considered at-risk of dropping out and enlisting them as tutors for elementary school youngsters who are also struggling in school. Given this role of personal and academic responsibility, the Valued Youth tutors learn self-discipline and develop self-esteem and schools shift to the philosophy and practices of valuing students considered at-risk. Results show that tutors stay in school, have increased academic performance, improved school attendance and advanced to higher education. (Robledo Montecel, 2009)

IDRA has worked with one South Texas school district where the turn-around from low-income students failing and dropping out of school has changed to one where students have returned to school, earned dual high school and college credit, and graduated from high school and enrolled in college. In this district, several initiatives have made this possible, including individualized counseling support that continues with high school counselors located on the local university campus. This exemplifies the components under the framework’s levers of change: accountable leadership, and enlightened public policy. It also demonstrates elements of the Quality Schools Action Framework’s change strategies:  community capacity building, coalition building and school capacity building. (Listen to IDRA’s Classnotes Podcast interview with Superintendent King, “Connecting Every Student to a Meaningful Future” March 10, 2011.)

While there are many factors that lead to student success in school, it is never acceptable to expect students from low-income backgrounds to be low-achievers. By reviewing the IDRA Quality Schools Action Framework, one can see that individuals (teachers, assistants, counselors, parents, etc.) and organizations (school districts, community organizations, civic groups, etc.) can each make a difference in the lives of students. Together that difference can be even greater!


Gullatt, D. “Enhancing Student Learning through Arts Integration: Implications for the Profession,” High School Journal. (2008). 91:4.

Henderson, A.T., & K.L. Mapp. A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement  (Austin, Texas: National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools, SEDL, 2002).

Martinez, G. “Literacy Success: Fifty Students from Areas throughout the United States Share their Stories,” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (2011) 55:3.

Merritt, E., Rimm-Kaufman, S., & Berry, R. “The Contribution of Mathematics Instructional Quality and Class Size to Student Achievement for Third Grade Students from Low-Income Families,” Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness (2011).

Robledo Montecel, M. Continuities – Lessons for the Future of Education from the IDRA Coca­-Cola Valued Youth Program (San Antonio: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2009).

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

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an education associate in IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2012, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2012 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.]