Engaging students in schools serving high poverty communities

Year: 2019

Author: Mills, Martin, McGregor, Glenda, Riddle, Stewart, Howell, Angelique

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Disengagement is recognised as a serious issue in OECD nations (Zyngier, 2008 [#_ENREF_4]), with reports of apparent performance declines and low levels of classroom discipline (Thomson, De Bortoli, & Underwood, 2017 [#_ENREF_3]). Research additionally suggests that disengaged students tend to feel marginalised, resentful and ineffective, with poor academic outcomes (Skinner & Pitzer, 2012 [#_ENREF_2]), while engagement is positively correlated with improved academic achievement, higher school completion rates, and increased student sense of belonging (Harris, 2011 [#_ENREF_1]).

This paper provides insights into how schools serving high poverty or marginalised communities attempt to facilitate students’ substantive engagement with their learning. Through discussions with students, teachers and principals, it considers effective school supports, school/classroom climate, pedagogy and programs, and the changes that are necessary to improve the education of students in low SES communities.

The early stages of the project sought to identify high schools throughout Queensland that were utilising positive strategies to improve student attendance rates and academic/vocational outcomes for students in at-risk groups and with low school disciplinary absences over the last 5 years. Through five case studies, the latter stages of the project (phases 3-5) sought to explore these strategies and the extent to which they were succeeding.

Procedural engagement was discussed more frequently than substantive engagement, with several schools conveying they were in the early stages of exploring engagement strategies after lifting their attendance rates. Key factors that supported students’ engagement included removing barriers, nurturing a positive school climate, support for ethnic groups, and alternative or flexible programs. Students facing particularly difficult circumstances were typically ‘case managed’. The schools generally considered data to be an important factor in students’ engagement, with careful tracking of students’ progress to provide timely and appropriate support or intervention.

While curriculum and pedagogy were typically discussed in terms of school-wide adoption of pedagogies, particularly explicit instruction, a few teachers discussed the importance of choice, linking practical assessments with theory, making links with ‘the real world’, providing opportunities to solve open-ended, challenging problems and developing curricula appropriate to the students’ needs and interests. Some schools reported that a re-culturing of the school community or change of mindsets was necessary to improve their students’ learning outcomes. This related to community views on the importance of schooling, as well as students’ perceptions of themselves as ‘dumb’. Inherent within such change, was the importance of leadership and principals’ willingness to engage with the community.