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Virginia Journal of Education

Bristol School Fights the Good Fight

Growing up in poverty shouldn’t leave you educationally deprived, too.

By Pamela L. Davis

In many schools, it takes more than good teaching alone to meet student needs. Much more: Educators must also help young people facing issues such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, abuse and chronic stress, all of which can have a significant impact in the classroom.

Our school, Highland View Elementary in Bristol, is a preK–5 school serving approximately 200 students and their families. More than 99 percent of our students come from economically disadvantaged homes and approximately one-third of those who begin the year at our school won’t stay through the entire school year. It’s a challenging population.

Our faculty and staff strongly believe that students’ physical, social and mental health, along with proper nutrition, contribute to academic success and more fulfilling lifestyles. With the support of our school board and superintendent, we facilitate several programs dedicated to giving our students every advantage we possibly can to help reach their fullest potential.

Those programs are just some of the ways high-poverty schools can address the inequities and barriers that create opportunity gaps, and help us give our students a better chance for a bright future. Because we all know how difficult it is for a child to be hungry for knowledge when he or she is also physically hungry for food and emotionally hungry for attention.

When our students arrive on a Monday morning, many haven’t eaten a real meal since they left school on Friday. Across Virginia, more than 300,000 children live in food-insecure households, meaning they don’t have reliable access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. Thanks to state and federal programs, we are now able to provide all our students with three no-cost meals at school and a weekend snack pack to take home.

Another challenge is that many of our students arrive at school feeling stressed out or traumatized by their home environment. They don’t just come to school in need of an education; they come to us in need of social and emotional support. So, each morning we watch students as they arrive, looking for signs of trouble we might be able to address early through counseling or other support to ease their transition into the school environment. It can be as simple as the hug students know they can get from me if they need it. Sometimes that alone will calm them enough to settle into learning.

Another program is our running club, which meets at 7:15 Monday through Thursday mornings. In addition to encouraging physical fitness, this club is designed to provide social support, build teamwork, reduce stress and trauma, and help the brain become ready for learning.

We don’t judge or blame students—or their families—when they show up hungry because there’s no food at home, or tired because they don’t have a bed to sleep in, or wearing dirty clothes. Instead, we provide solutions wherever we can. For example, we keep a washer and dryer in a storage room and use it throughout the day. We have a collection of clothing donations so students have something to wear while their clothes are being washed. Most importantly, we treat our students like they’re our own children.

When students enter Highland View, one-third of them are one or more grade levels below where they should be in math and reading. Because of this, I believe that preschool is the number one intervention we can offer to prevent educational issues for children in poverty. Once students enter kindergarten, we provide an array of programs to close gaps and support their academic development and growth.

One such program is an online language and reading intervention called Fast ForWord (, which helps set the stage for children’s brains to absorb everything that comes their way. It starts with cognitive skills including memory, attention and processing speed, and works from the bottom up using the principles of neuroplasticity to address the root cause of the difficulties students may be having. We target this intervention to students at Tiers 2 and 3 of our Response to Intervention program. After participating in Fast ForWord, students are better able to focus and pay attention, which enables them to be more successful with whatever instruction or interventions they receive. Without that focus and attention, you lose them before you even begin an intervention.

We also offer a comprehensive after-school program every day, from 3 to 5:30 p.m., where students can read, work on homework and participate in intervention or enrichment activities. This, too, is a crucial resource for children living in poverty.

We rely on a variety of community organizations, social service agencies, nonprofits, churches and local businesses to keep our programs running. From books to shoes to food to medical help, these organizations provide support for students and their families.

In addition, we recently launched a partnership with the Jacobs Creek Job Corps Center, a free program that helps young people ages 16–24 improve the quality of their lives through career, technical and academic training. We give Jacobs Creek students access to the Fast ForWord program and, in turn, they come to our school to help with projects, such as painting over the summer. They appreciate the opportunity and are making the most of it. This summer, they made average reading level gains of one year and three months in only 21 days of using the program. Our goal is to implement this model in our school with students’ parents, many of whom are single mothers, to help them improve their reading skills.

These are just some of the efforts we’re making to help our children. We’ve made progress, too, but it’s an ongoing endeavor.

In 2013-14, we reduced the failure rate by 10 percent on the Standards of Learning tests. In 2015, more than 70 percent of our students passed SOL exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent passed in English. In 2016, however, our test scores slid a bit. With a highly mobile population, and in a location that’s just two miles from the state border, it can be difficult to achieve and maintain growth schoolwide, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying. The students who are with us do show growth, so we keep pushing forward.

To be successful, we believe we need to educate and strengthen the whole child and empower the family. At Highland View Elementary, our goal isn’t just to make a difference in students’ and families’ lives; we want to be the difference in their lives.

Davis, a member of the Bristol Virginia Education Association, is the principal of Highland View Elementary School. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in The Hechinger Report (, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.


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