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Poverty and Student Homelessness at the Metropolitan Margins: Sensemaking Among School and Community Leaders in a Growing Suburb

by Alexandra E. Pavlakis - 2018

Background/Context: Historically, the suburbs have symbolized the attainment of the American dream. In this post-World War II imagery, the typical suburban residents are White middle-class homeowners. Although to some extent the suburbs have always been diverse, recently, many have undergone racial and socioeconomic changes. Alongside these shifts, the suburbs are increasingly facing rising poverty and student homelessness. However, there is a dearth of education research that examines how poverty and homelessness unfold in the suburbs.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Drawing from the suburban poverty literature, my purpose is to learn how school and community leaders in a growing suburb make sense of rising poverty and homelessness.

Setting: This study is situated in Acreville, a pseudonym for a rapidly growing Midwest suburb. Acreville is a majority-White and relatively affluent suburb that has experienced rising poverty and homelessness.

Research Design: This qualitative case study draws from wide-ranging data, including 42 interviews with community and school leaders, analysis of school board meeting minutes, observation of school board meetings, artifact collection, and longitudinal district data on poverty, homelessness, and mobility.

Findings/Results: I identified four narratives that reflect the ways in which leaders in Acreville made sense of rising poverty and homelessness. Often times, leaders used these narratives to rationalize and justify their actions or the actions of others around matters of poverty and homelessness. The narratives reflected ideologies around community identity, poverty, and race. They also played an important role in policy and molded the educational opportunities of families and students experiencing poverty and homelessness in unique ways.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Although historically the suburbs were associated with the American Dream, today, many confront rising poverty and homelessness without the needed infrastructure and supports necessary to meet families’ needs. Surprisingly, Acreville is home to a number of innovative programs, practices, and services. In some ways, Acreville could serve as a model to other communities—at least on paper. Yet, matters related to community identity, class, race, and geographic space often thwarted the full potential of these well-intentioned responses. Implications for theory and specific recommendations for scholars, school leaders, community providers, and leadership preparation are discussed.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 11, 2018, p. 1-58
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22460, Date Accessed: 9/25/2021 6:04:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Alexandra Pavlakis
    Southern Methodist University
    E-mail Author
    ALEXANDRA E. PAVLAKIS is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University. Her research agenda addresses the social contexts of education. In particular, she examines how student and families’ broader life contexts intersect with educational institutions, actors, policies, and practices to shape their schooling experiences. She focuses on three strands: educational leadership, family–school–community relations, and social and educational policy. Across all three strands, much of her work examines the contexts of poverty and homelessness. In addition to Teachers College Record, her work can be found in venues such as Educational Researcher, Urban Education, and The Urban Review. Recent publications include: Pavlakis, A.E. (2018). Spaces, places, and policies: Contextualizing student homelessness. Educational Researcher, 47(2), pp. 134–141. doi.org/10.3102/0013189X17742645; and Pavlakis, A. E., Goff, P., & Miller, P. M. (2017). Contextualizing the impact of homelessness on academic growth. Teachers College Record, 119(10).
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