We are Failing our Most Vulnerable Children
Growing numbers of students face chronic poverty, homelessness, and more

June 19, 2018
By Tyrone C. Howard
To read the original op-ed published in Education Week, please go here.


Schools face ongoing challenges in helping to ensure that all children have access to a high-quality education. However, a closer look at today’s schools reveals a disturbing demographic trend that shows little indication of slowing down: increasing numbers of vulnerable children. Although a number of children’s circumstances can fall into the “vulnerable” category, those who are mired in chronic poverty, homeless, facing untreated mental-health issues, or part of the foster-care system are among the most vulnerable in our schools and society today.

Consider that the National Center for Children in Poverty estimates that roughly 15 million children—1 in 5—live in poverty, and a disproportionate number of these youths are African-American, Latino, or Native American. The Child Mind Institute finds that close to 17 million children have mental-health issues, many of which are never addressed. The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that 2.5 million children experience homelessness every year in this country. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has tracked an increase in the number of children in foster care over the past several years, which rose to 437,500 by the end of the fiscal year of 2016.

To state the obvious, growing numbers of children face arduous circumstances before ever entering school. Although many courageous and dedicated teachers, staff, and leaders work tirelessly in these schools, the reality is painfully clear: Most schools are ill-equipped and underprepared to understand, let alone address, the depth, breadth, complexity, and seriousness of the challenges that many students face daily.

“Driverless cars and trips to Mars are well within our reach. Why can’t we find ways to house, feed, care for, educate, and support all children?”

It is difficult to inspire children when they are hungry. Children’s ability to concentrate on learning is compromised when complex trauma has been a staple in their lives. They are hard-pressed to think about homework when they do not know where they will sleep at night.

School personnel cannot be blamed for students test scores not improving when chronic violence, despair, and hopelessness are on full display every day for many young people. So what is our response? How do we help those most in dire need? To respond to the complex needs of vulnerable populations, everyone—educators, policymakers, and communities—can start with a three-pronged approach:

1) Acknowledge the complexity of contemporary circumstances. The first step to supporting children in vulnerable circumstances has to be recognizing the complexity of these challenges. Issues tied to inequality, poverty, racism, and sexism remain very much enmeshed in our nation’s fabric, despite the apparent progress we have made. To that end, we need to realize that complicated problems are not solved with simplistic approaches or mundane “how to’s.”

We all must recognize the all-too-clear connections between race and poverty, between gender and exclusion, and between immigration and opportunity.

We must recognize the dearth of affordable housing in many cities at a time when landlords and property owners continue to accrue unprecedented wealth—and how this disparity has grave implications for students struggling with housing insecurity.

As a responsible society, we must also understand the relationship between mental health and substance abuse. The unacceptable numbers of children who are abused, neglected, or under the auspice of child welfare services often can be traced back to the deep pain, frustration, despair, suffering, marginalization, and desperation of their parents. A close look at many children’s circumstances reveals high levels of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and mental-health challenges for adults who care for them.

These are complex problems that are compounded by the complicity, indifference, ignorance, or carelessness by many adults. We must do better.

2) Build a robust multidisciplinary, solutions-oriented approach. An irony of today’s circumstances is that our expertise and knowledge about how to address and solve difficult problems has never been higher. Researchers continue to make new discoveries and innovation in science continues to amaze the mind. Driverless cars and trips to Mars are well within our reach. Why can’t we find ways to house, feed, care for, educate, and support all children?

We have not yet developed a consistent, evidence-based mechanism to work across disciplines to support our most precarious populations. The complexity of today’s problems demands we do so. Issues that children face have critical connections not only to education, but also public policy, law, medicine, social welfare, and mental health. However, academics and advocates often fall painfully short in creating the partnerships that allow sustainable, cross-discipline collaborations to address multifaceted problems.

Take, for example, a child who struggles academically, suffers from food and housing insecurity, has undiagnosed mental-health and learning problems, and also has a parent or caregiver facing severe financial challenges. Yet, the teacher of that vulnerable child never talks to the mental-health advocate. The child’s therapist rarely engages the social worker, and the social worker seldom shares ideas and insights with a pediatrician. The pediatrician, in turn, does not know the student has an IEP, which requires regular monitoring.

Our inability or unwillingness to talk, think, plan, research, and problem solve across fields only compounds the disconnect. We must popularize trans-disciplinary approaches to our efforts to support vulnerable populations.

3) Develop the moral conviction to support our vulnerable youth. Finally, everyone can and must play a role in sustaining the moral conviction to respond to our most vulnerable student populations. Elected officials must work in sync with social service agencies to ensure bureaucracy and lack of information does not impede families’ access to desperately needed assistance. Community-based organizations must work with educational institutions to offer needed supports. Faith-based organizations can connect to philanthropic organizations to seek additional funding to help struggling families.

A society will only be as prosperous as its young. At a time of growing marginalization of many of our youths, the time to act is now. Our future could be in peril if we do not act swiftly, boldly, and courageously.