From the quality of instruction to the availability of afterschool programs, youth who attend schools characterized by concentrated poverty tend to have access to fewer positive developmental opportunities than students enrolled in schools with greater socioeconomic diversity. Extant research has focused on the direct association between the proportion of students eligible for free or reduced price meals (FRM) and academic achievement. Fewer studies have considered factors that may mediate this relationship, such as opportunities for empowerment, which could be under-utilized as levers for improving educational outcomes. In the current study, we consider the association between school-level FRM rate and young people’s perceptions of student empowerment, as operationalized by Kirk et al. (2016) to entail positive relationships, equitable roles, and a sense of community. We hypothesized that school-level FRM rate would be negatively correlated with all three of these indicators.
Teachers in a large urban district administered a school climate survey to all secondary students in the spring of 2019. The resulting sample (81% response rate) included 29,318 youth in grades 6-12 from 211 schools. Survey participants were predominantly young people of color (76%) and nearly half (48%) attended a school where more than 75% of students were eligible for FRM.
The independent variable was a continuous percentage of students eligible for FRM at the school-level. The three dependent variables were student-level reports of empowerment. Survey items included four point response options ranging from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (3). Student-staff relationships (M=8.9, SD=2.3, ⍺=.82) and equitable roles (M=8.8, SD= 2.1, ⍺ =.79) were each comprised of four items, and sense of community was a sum of six items (M=12.6, SD=2.9, ⍺=.821). At the student-level, all analysis controlled for gender, special education status, gifted and talented program eligibility, English language learner status, average daily attendance, grade-level, and racial identity. At the school-level, covariates included grade configuration (middle, high, or alternative e.g. K-8), school size, charter or district governance, school attendance rate, and racial composition.
We estimated multilevel linear regression models (youth nested in schools) using Stata 13 to assess the relationships between school poverty rates and student reports of empowerment.
Results from the multilevel regression indicated that school FRM rate was negatively associated with students’ perceptions of their relationships with staff (ꞵ -.45, p <.05), equitable roles (ꞵ -.51, p <.01), and sense of community (ꞵ -1.16, p <.001).
Findings suggest that young people who attend schools with higher poverty rates may have less access to opportunities for empowerment than their peers enrolled in schools with more advantaged student populations. Increasing the implementation of youth voice approaches at high poverty schools may improve young people's perceptions of student empowerment, and ultimately, their academic achievement.
We conducted this study through an interdisciplinary university-community partnership. Our team will work collaboratively to incorporate the results into program development, grant writing, professional learning activities, and future avenues of inquiry.