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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.


Historically, the suburbs have symbolized the attainment of the American dream (A. Murphy, 2007). In this post-World War II imagery, the typical suburban residents are White middle-class homeowners (Baldassare, 1986). With race and class-based undertones, suburban living became associated with morality, simplicity, and purity, in contrast to the hectic, immoral, unstable, and dangerous life in the city (A. Murphy, 2007, p. 22). Although to some extent the suburbs have always been diverse (Diamond, 2012; Gans, 1967), recently, many have undergone racial and socioeconomic changes. Alongside these shifts, the suburbs are increasingly facing rising poverty and student homelessness (Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Mikelbank, 2004; Miller & Bourgeois, 2013; see also Miller, Pavlakis, & Bourgeois, 2013). However, there is a dearth of education research that examines how poverty and homelessness unfold in the suburbs. Drawing from the suburban poverty literature, my purpose is to address this gap and learn how school and community leaders in a growing suburb make sense of rising poverty and homelessness.


There are more than 1.3 million students in the United States who have been identified as homelessand this number is rising (National Center for Homeless Education [NCHE], 2015). These students tend to face high rates of social isolation, school mobility, behavioral problems, and grade retention (Bassuk & Rubin, 1987; Buckner, 2008; Masten et al., 1997, 2012; Miller, 2011a; J. Murphy & Tobin, 2011; Obradović et al., 2009; Rafferty, Shinn, & Weitzman, 2004; Zima, Bussing, Forness, & Benjamin, 1997; Zima, Wells, & Freeman, 1994). Poverty, as defined by eligibility for free school lunch, is a key risk factor for homelessness; as such, the vast majority of students experiencing homelessness are also in poverty (Buckner, 2008; Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Miller 2011a, 2013).

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD; 2015), 45.9% of all people staying in residential programs for the homeless are African American, 44.8% are White, 4.9% are multiple races, 2.2% are Native American, 1.3% are Pacific Islander, and 0.9% are Asian. Families of colorand Blacks in particularare also overrepresented in shelters (J. Murphy & Tobin, 2011). Even though Blacks composed just 14% of families with children in the 2013 fiscal year, approximately 48% of homeless families in shelters were Black (Child Trends, 2015).


The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (MVA; McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987), which aims to reduce barriers to school success by providing a range of supports to students experiencing homelessness, defines homelessness as lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. Reauthorized under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and, most recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the MVA covers children and youth in a variety of contexts such as shelters, motels, and doubled up situations (defined as living with friends or family out of economic necessity) (P.L. 107-110; P.L. 114-95). The MVA definition, which public schools follow, is broader than how HUD historically conceptualized homelessness (Administration for Children and Families, n.d.; National Health Care for the Homeless Council, 2016). It also stands in contrast to common perceptions of who counts as homeless (Lansu, 2015); during the 20132014 school year, 76% of children identified as homeless under the MVA were doubled upnot living in shelters or on the streets (NCHE, 2015).

Scholars have employed various conceptualizations of homelessness, sometimes focusing only on shelters (e.g., Buckner, Bassuk, & Weinreb, 2001; Fantuzzo, LeBoef, Chen, Rouse, & Culhane, 2012; Miller, 2011c), while other times applying an MVA definition (e.g., Herbers et al., 2012; Obradović et al., 2009). Often, scholars use “homeless and highly mobile,” or “HHM,” which reflects the fact that many families are residentially unstable even if they are not out on the streets or living in shelters (Miller & Bourgeois, 2013; Obradović et al., 2009; Pavlakis, 2015).

The term poverty and homelessness is preferred in this study because it considers not only students and families who have been identified as homeless under the MVA, but also those who remain unidentified or who live on the brink of homelessness. This study takes a broad approach for a number of reasons. First, leadersboth outside and even inside schools (see Miller, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c; Pavlakis, 2014, 2015)may have limited knowledge of the MVA. Therefore, some leaders (and even organizations) can serve families who are experiencing homelessness, but they do not consider them homeless (because they are not living on the streets or in shelters). This misalignment may be even greater in areas that have less experience with homelessness and no homeless shelters (such as many suburbs). Because this study examines how leaders make sense of change, the term homelesswith its varied definitions across agencies and narrow definition in popular culturecould serve to restrict the analysis. Furthermore, the majority of students experiencing homelessness are also in poverty, while many others in poverty meet the MVA definition but remain unidentified or live in the brink of becoming eligible (Buckner, 2008; Miller, 2011a; Miller & Bourgeois, 2013). In other words, the shared space between poverty and homelessness is considerable (J. Murphy & Tobin, 2011, p. 81). Canfield (2015) also highlighted that family homelessness is often transient and episodic; families may find safe, fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime housing for a month, then spend two months on the streets, followed by a week or two of housing, then back to the shelter for a spell (p. 7). Finally, poverty and homelessness is responsive to the literature on suburban poverty that guided this community-level work. Given that programs and practices that are designed for all children in poverty are important resources for the homeless (Miller, 2011a), this purposeful terminology reflects that family homelessness is most often a transient, poverty-related problem with roots that center on, but extend beyond, housing. However, when findings refer specifically (or only) to students identified as homeless under the MVA, the term homeless is used by itself.


Instead of simply describing density, the term urban is often a euphemism for poverty, crime, and race. In fact, urban is sometimes applied to schools that are located in low-density spaces but happen to have a high proportion of students of color (Milner, 2012). Urban spaces tend to face a variety of challenges but are often also places with many resources. I recognize the coded ways in which urban is often used.

Although suburbia may conjure up certain images for many Americans, there is not a universal definition. It is, however, often discussed in terms of its relationship with and contrasts to urban spaces (Kneebone & Berube, 2013). Some scholars define a suburb as any space outside the first-named city in a metropolitan area. In contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau tends to classify a number of places in a metropolitan area as principal cities; the suburbs, by default, are areas outside these cities (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Kneebone & Berube, 2013). I recognize that there is not a universal definition for the suburbs and that various definitions exist in the research literature. For the purposes of this study, however, cities refers to first-named places in metropolitan areas, and the suburbs reside within metropolitan areas but are not principal cities.   

Drawing from Census classifications of cities and guidelines on population density, M. Orfield and Luce (2012) argued that the suburbs are now at the cutting edge of racial change (p. 2). They defined racially diverse suburbs as 20%60% non-White and found that they are growing faster than predominantly White suburbs. Yet, in their conceptualization, predominately-White communities must exceed 80% White, but communities are predominately non-White after 60%. In the context of this study, rising or increasing racial diversity refers to a declining gap between the percentage of Whites and people of color rather than to this continuum.  


Paralleling racial changes, the suburban poverty literature complicates and problematizes the geographic and ideological contrasts between urban and suburban spaces. Here I focus on contemporary trends in suburban poverty before turning to how suburban poverty unfolds in districts. Finally, I examine the challenges these trends create for communities and schools.


Research suggests that inner-ring suburbs, which are older, higher density, and closer to the city, tend to face poverty-related challenges (Hudnut, 2003; Jargowsky, 1997; Leigh & Lee, 2005; M. Orfield, 2002; Swanstrom, Winter, Sherraden, & Lake, 2013). In a 1999 report, HUD claimed that many older suburbs were experiencing problems once associated only with urban areasjob loss, population decline, crime and disinvestment (p. 1). Hanlon and Vicino (2007) and Vicino (2008) found that Baltimores inner suburbs experienced socioeconomic decline from 1980 to 2000but to varying degrees. Leigh and Lee (2005) also found that inner-ring suburbs were at risk of decline and experienced trends similar to central cities (e.g., White flight and increased poverty). Baker (2015) argued, however, that many of these dense, older suburban areas appear virtually indistinguishable from urban areas and thus do not signal a crisis. Yet, some scholars found that even newer suburbs are affected by poverty (Holliday & Dwyer, 2009; A. Murphy, 2010). Likewise, others have noted changes in the geography of poverty at the broader metropolitan area level (Berube & Frey, 2002; Kingsley & Pettit, 2003).  

Recent work suggests that suburban poverty has become more pronounced after the 2008 recession (A. Murphy, 2010; Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Kneebone & Garr, 2010; Wilson, 2012). Kneebone and Garr (2010) found that by 2008, the suburbs had the largest and fastest expanding poor population in the country. By 2010, 54% of the metropolitan poor lived in the suburbs, and nationwide, 1 out of every 3 poor Americans lived in suburban spaces (Kneebone & Berube, 2013). Examining 1,817 suburban jurisdictions in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, Kneebone and Berube (2013) found that 988 faced increasing poverty between 2000 and 20082010. They created a typology of suburban poverty based on population growth and change in regional employment: Rapid growth suburbs had an above average population growth and an above average change in employment, strained suburbs had an above average population growth and a below average change in employment, at risk suburbs had a below average population growth and an above average change in employment, and distressed suburbs had a below average population growth and a below average change in employment.

Suburban poverty can be partly explained by the downward mobility of suburban residents. The 2008 recession took its toll on the suburbsparticularly in areas dependent on manufacturing and construction. On the other hand, the in-migration of low-income people seeking a better life also contributed to trends. For instance, in many metropolitan areas, gentrification is pushing lower income residents out of city neighborhoods and into the suburbswhere housing may be more affordable. The suburbs have also increasingly become home to immigrants and refugees (Kneebone & Berube, 2013). Likewise, by 2043, the United States is no longer projected to be a majority-White nationthese shifts are important because children of color disproportionately experience poverty and homelessness (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Kayne, 2013; J. Murphy & Tobin, 2011). These national trends have a suburban bent; by 2000, a majority of Latinos lived in the suburbs (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012). Although the suburbs have experienced population growth (which has shifted demographics on its own), poverty rates have also risen in suburbs that did not grow (Kneebone & Berube, 2013).  

Housing policies also shape trends. Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8), for instance, are geared toward preventing and ending homelessness and allow extremely low-income families and individuals to find affordable housing on the private marketencouraging the diffusion of poverty (Kneebone & Berube, 2013). Recent federal rehousing policies, such as the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act of 2009 (HEARTH), may also be shifting the geography of family homelessness. The HEARTH Actdesigned to help families maintain or transition into independent living arrangementsemphasizes the use of scatter-site housing over congregate shelters. In congregate shelters, families may typically have their own bedroom but share dining, recreation, and/or bathroom facilities with many other residents. Typically, scatter-site housing is spread throughout middle-class neighborhoods; it tends to be low densityeither individual units or small batches of family units. Thus, rather than concentrating families in a small number of shelters, with policies such as the HEARTH Act, families may be more likely to be dispersed over larger geographic areas, including the suburbs (Miller & Bourgeois, 2013).


Because poverty rates among school-age children often rise faster than in the general population (M. Orfield, 2002), schools tend to inhabit the front lines of efforts to cope with rising suburban poverty, no matter the particular factors driving the trend (Kneebone & Berube, 2013, p. 66). Since the 199091 school year, suburban enrollments have increased in nearly every metropolitan area (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012). Because of rising enrollments from 1999 to 2006, Frankenberg and Orfield (2012) found that the increase in poor students in suburban schools exceeded the increase in city schools in many metropolitan areas. Kneebone and Berube (2013) found that in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, by the 20092010 school year, there were 2.9 million more suburban students enrolled in the free and reduced price lunch (frp) program than there were in the cities. City schools, however, still maintained a greater concentration of students on frp lunch (65% versus only 39%) but by the late 2000s, the discrepancy between the city and suburbs was declining (Kneebone & Berube, 2013).

Cities often confront larger proportions of students experiencing homelessness than the suburbsand much of the education scholarship on homelessness is situated in urban, rather than suburban, areas (e.g., Grothaus, Lorelle, Anderson, & Knight, 2011; Hallett, 2012; Miller, 2011c; Pavlakis, 2014, 2015). In addressing homelessness, scholars suggest focusing on the MVA, overcoming biases, creating a welcoming school culture, and connecting families to resources through meaningful cross-sector action (Grothaus et al., 2011; Groton, Teasley, & Canfield, 2013; Miller, 2013; J. Murphy & Tobin, 2011; Shields & Warke, 2010; Stronge & Hudson, 1999). While suburban communities are often overlooked, they may face distinct challenges in responding.


Compared with central cities, some suburban areas may be at an advantage when it comes to addressing poverty and homelessness. Since the 1970s, income and wealth inequality has increasedwith most of the change attributed to the wealthy getting considerably richer (Alvaredo, Atkinson, Piketty, & Saez, 2013; Piketty & Saez, 2013; Putnam, 2015; Snellman, Silva, Frederick, & Putnam, 2015). To the extent that suburban areas are also wealthy, they may have a high tax base and the capacity to raise private donations (Snellman et al., 2015).   

Yet, many areas are not wealthy, and even when they do have financial resources, they may still face unique obstacles. Not all suburban areas face the same challenges, and some may be caught off guard (Kneebone & Berube, 2013, p. 57) and lack the capacity to effectively respond (M. Orfield, 2002). Suburban areas may also focus more on the affluent, serving to marginalize the poor (Holliday & Dwyer, 2009). Many face access and transportation barriers (Boeri, Tyndall, & Woodall, 2011; Francis, Berger, Giardini, & Steinman, 2009; Hess, 2005; Kneebone & Berube, 2013), difficulty competing for resources (Allard & Roth, 2010; Gaines & Kaimer, 1994; Kneebone & Berube, 2013; A. Murphy, 2010; Reckhow & Weir, 2010; Tyre & Phillips, 2007), a sheer lack of antipoverty organizations (Allard, 2004; A. Murphy & Wallace, 2010), and political and policy obstacles (Hudnut, 2003; Kneebone & Berube, 2013; A. Murphy, 2010).

There is a small body of literature on suburban school segregation (e.g., Reardon & Yun, 2001; Reardon, Yun, & Chmielewski, 2012; Wells et al., 2009, 2012), suburban district responses to racial changes (e.g., Evans, 2007a, 2007b; DeBray & Grooms, 2012; Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Holme, Diem, & Welton, 2014; Welton, Diem, & Holme, 2013), and the suburban schooling experiences of families of color (e.g., Diamond, 2006; Lewis-McCoy, 2014). Notably, one study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project (http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/) explored how school districts in the suburbs respond to demographically changing student populations. Frankenberg and Orfield (2012) suggested that how suburban districts respond to racial changes is likely to vary based on a number of political, institutional, and policy factors. Because schools are only a piece of much broader metropolitan change, many suburban districts did not have the capacity to coherently respond (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012).

Although this research makes important progress in understanding demographic change, segregation, and experiences in suburban districts, there is little to no education research that considers student homelessness in the suburbs. Using geospatial analysis in one metropolitan area, Miller and Bourgeois (2013) suggested that, perhaps more than ever . . . student homelessness is not just a big city issue (p. 242). They found that residential instability was spreading and speculated that suburban districts may lack the needed infrastructure that is more commonalthough not ubiquitousin large, urban districts. For instance, some cities have programs that are dedicated to overseeing MVA implementation. Suburban districts may also have less experience working with student homelessness; these challenges, however, are likely to be coupled with community-level barriers to accessing education-related resources (e.g., fewer community centers and larger distances between services; Miller & Bourgeois, 2013).

Taken together, these suburban challenges signal that rising poverty and homelessness may serve as a disorienting change or even a crisis for unsuspecting schools and communities (see Evans, 2007b). Yet, more work is needed on suburban poverty and homelessness from an education perspective (Miller & Bourgeois, 2013). I address this gap by examining suburban school and community leaders perspectives around poverty and homelessness. As such, I build on the work of the UCLA Civil Rights Project and Miller and Bourgeois (2013) while also extending the suburban poverty literature (e.g., Kneebone and Berube, 2013; A. Murphy, 2010). I ask, In a rapidly growing suburb, how do school and community leaders make sense of rising poverty and homelessness? Because the school and community share leadership pertaining to family poverty and homelessness (Miller, 2011b)and school social workers can often play key connecting roles (Groton et al., 2013)I use the term school leaders rather than administrators. To address my research question, I draw organizational insights from theories of sensemakingparticularly the work of Karl Weick and colleagues (Weick, 1995; Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005).


With diverse historical roots (e.g., Blumer, 1969; Giddens, 1976; Mead, 1934; Weber, 1947), sensemaking refers to the ways in which people or groups apply meaning to their experiences (Weick, 1995). Faced with change or crisis (Evans, 2007b), people undergo experiences that can be interpreted in different ways (Weick, 1995). They make sense of unexpected events by situating new information within their worldviews, or preexisting cognitive frameworksframeworks that are shaped by their multiple and intersecting identities around constructs such as race, class, gender, or professional position (Coburn, 2005; Evans, 2007b; Porac, Thomas, & Baden-Fuller, 1989). As Figure 1 illustrates, the sensemaking process occurs when people or groups take a cue from their environment and then make a connection to their framework. According to Weick (1995), the feeling of order, clarity, and rationality is an important goal of sensemaking (p. 29). Weick (1995) outlined seven sensemaking properties:


Identity: When people face an unsettling difference, that difference will often translate into questions such as who are we, what are we doing, what matters, and why does it matter? (Weick et al., 2005, p. 416).


Retrospective: People tend to make sense of events after they occur. Sensemaking on one event shapes future sensemaking (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004; Weick, 1995).


Enactment: Actors are part of the environment. They create their surroundings, and their actions can restrict future actions (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004; Weick, 1995).


Ongoing: Sensemaking does not have a clean start or finish (Weick, 1995).


Social: It is based on interactions with others (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004; Weick, 1995).


Extracted Cues: The cues actors take from their environment are often those that are compatible with their previous experiences (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004; Weick, 1995).


Plausibility: It focuses on what is conceivable rather than accurate (Weick, 1995).

Self-fulfilling prophecies are also a central sensemaking act; peoples expectations regarding what may happen drive what they end up seeing, confirming their expectations (Weick, 1995).

Figure 1. The sensemaking process


According to Thayer (1988), the leader is a sensegiver (p. 254) because it is the leaders stories that mediate for all those who would follow, an alternative way of being, doing, knowing, having, or saying in the world (p. 260). Given the importance of leadership to sensemaking, it is not surprising that it has been applied to educational leadershipoften in the context of policy implementation (e.g., Coburn, 2001, 2005; Spillane, Diamond, et al., 2002; Spillane, Reiser, & Reimer, 2002). Evanss work (2007b), however, examined how school leaders made sense of racial changes in three suburban high schools and found that their sensemaking related to their racial and role identities as well as the local context and ideology of their schools.

Although rising poverty and homelessness is likely a change or crisis (see Evans, 2007b) ripe for sensemaking, to my knowledge, the theories have not been applied to this context. To examine leaders sensemaking around rising poverty and homelessness, I draw organizational insights from Weick (1995)as well as from Evans (2007b), which extended Weick (1995). Evans (2007b) homed in on multiple identities, while Weicks (1995) work was especially relevant because it outlined sensemakings central properties and focused on the individual and organizational dimensions. This emphasis guided my consideration of sensemaking among both school and community leaders who are positioned within districts and other nonprofit, government, and private sector organizationsa crucial focus given the importance of cross-sector action in addressing poverty and homelessness (Miller, 2011b). I recognize that leaders are often embedded in organizations but also working and living in the same communityin this case, Acreville, a pseudonym for a Midwest suburb. Therefore, I also consider the applicability of sensemaking to the broader, cross-organizational community level.


Acreville is not only a suburb of a medium-sized city (City Z) but is also located close to two larger, high-density citiesone in the same state (City Y) and one in a neighboring state (City X). Acreville was an appropriate site for my case study for several reasons. First, the Acreville School District (ASD) has experienced rising poverty and homelessness. From the 20012002 to 20132014 school year, the percentage of students in poverty has more than doubledclimbing from 14.4% (712 students) to 30% (1,980 students). Likewise, between 20052006 and 20132014, the number of homeless students increased by 308%, from 34 to 139 students. For students experiencing homelessness (where race was available), 86.8% were African American, and 13.2% were White. There are no shelters in Acreville; 75% of students identified as homeless were doubled up, 17% were in hotels/motels, 4% were unsheltered, 2% were in a city shelter, and the residential spaces of 2% were unknown.

Second, although much of the research on suburban poverty focuses on the inner-ring suburbs (most of which are distressed or at risk in Kneebone and Berubes 2013 typology), Acreville is a rapidly growing communitya type of suburb less well examined. According to Kneebone and Berube (2013), between 2000 and 2010, rapid growth suburbs experienced a 43% growth in population and were located in regions that experienced metropolitan employment gains of 6%. Over this same time period (20002010), Acrevilles population increased by nearly 50% (to almost 31,000), and its metropolitan area experienced an increase in employment of 6.9% (compared with an average of -1.3%) (E. Kneebone, personal communication, July 15, 2014). To date, Acreville remains one of the fastest growing communities in the state.

Last, the community conforms to popular conceptions of the suburbs. Its mean family income far exceeds the states average (an indicator of relative affluence), and it is car dependent (93% of workers commute by automobile). Reflecting its post-WWII growth, 93% of its housing was built after 1950. Although Acreville is undergoing racial changes, it still remains majority White (85%). Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of Blacks increased 100% (to 6% of the population), and the percentage of Latino residents (across race) increased nearly 60% (to 4% of the population). As such, Acreville is an instrumental case in that it is undergoing changes that are similar to many other rapidly growing suburbs throughout the nation.


This 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.


I conducted 42 semistructured interviews in personeach lasting about an hour (see Figure 2). To guide my purposeful selection, I drew insights from a study of educational reform and civic capacity, which identified educational specialists, community-based representatives, and general influentials (Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 1999; Portz, Stein, & Jones, 1999; see also Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012). Across all three categories, I coupled expert sampling (Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012) with snowball sampling to identify hidden actors (Bryman, 2004). Expert sampling was also well aligned to Weicks (1995) sensemakingit allowed me to identify leaders by foregrounding their institutional position and organizational knowledge. Expert sampling in a majority-White community led to a sample of participants who were predominantly White and, by virtue of their professional roles, often in positions of relative power in the community.

Figure 2. Data collection


Source: Educational specialists, community-based representatives, and general influentials. Adapted from, Henig, Hula, Orr, & Pedescleaux, 1999; Portz, Stein, & Jones, 1999; see also Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012.

For this study, educational specialists (n = 16) were school leaders. I invited all district principals and school social workers (the main point of contact for the MVA), interviewing 55% of all principals and more than 38% of social workers. Using snowball sampling, I also interviewed central office actors (n = 2), assistant principals (n = 2), and an instructional assistant/Title I parent liaison (n = 1). Although my purposeful selection was not driven by demographics (but by expertise, as signaled through professional title and snowball sampling), Table 1 highlights the race/ethnicity of the educational specialists by position. In ASD, Whites composed nearly 96% of all licensed positions. In the sample, nearly 88% of the educational specialists were White; 11 were female, and five were male.

Table 1. Race/Ethnicity of Educational Specialists by Position


Sample by Race/Ethnicity


6/6 (100%) White

Assistant Principals

2/2 (100%) White

Central Office Administrators

2/2 (100%) White

School Social Workers

3/5 (60%) White

1/5 (20%) Asian

1/5 (20%) two or more races

Instructional Assistant/Title I Parent Liaison

1/1 (100%) White


14/16 (87.5%) White

1 /16 (6.25%) Asian

1/16 (6.25%) two or more races

Community-based representatives (n = 15) were leaders who worked for organizations that either provided services to families experiencing poverty and homelessness or had an education mission. I identified organizations (e.g., social service, advocacy, neighborhood, or religious) through the Acreville Chamber of Commerce Community Guide and then isolated the key leaders through the organizations websites. Snowball sampling led to additional providers. Of all the community-based representatives invited to interview, 79% opted to participate; 10 of the community-based representatives were White females, and five were White males.

General influentials (n = 11) were central decision makers in the communityserving key roles in business or local government. I identified general influentials through the town website, the Chamber of Commerce Community Guide, and snowball sampling techniques. Of all the general influentials I invited to an interview, 58% opted to participate. Of the 11 general influentialswho were all Whitesix were male and five were female.

Borrowing from Frankenberg and Orfield (2012), I used three separate semistructured interview protocols with some overlapping questions, and, drawing from ethnography, I wrote field notes about the interviewees nonverbal cues (Bryman, 2004). Table 2 highlights sample questions from the protocols. To validate the interview protocols, I piloted each one with university colleagues who were well versed in the literature. The educational specialist protocol was piloted with an assistant principal of a suburban school in a district similar to ASD.

Table 2. Sample Protocol Questions

Educational Specialists

Community-Based Representatives

General Influentials

In what ways is Acreville a great place to raise kids and send them to school?

In what ways might this community be a challenge for some families and children?

To what extent do you think the community is aware of poverty and homelessness?

Since you have been here, can you give me specific examples of how the community has changed over time and how it has stayed the same?

In recent years, Acreville has experienced heightened student poverty and homelessness.

What do you think accounts for or has contributed to these changes?

Participants chose the date, time, and location for the voluntary interview, selected their own pseudonym, and had control of the audio recorder. All proper nouns in the study are pseudonyms, and some details were changed to protect the identity of individuals, the district, or the broader community. Throughout the entire study, I was aware of how my research impacted the participants and community (Sieber, 1998). I continued to invite and interview leaders until I reached saturation within my three groups: educational specialists, community-based representatives, and general influentials. Each of the 42 interviews served as a nested caseI used each one to help me predict what I may learn in the next interview and to gain a sense of when I reached saturation (Small, 2009).   

Additional Data Collection

Because school board meetings are spaces where school and community leaders interact and can collectively make sense of change (see Coburn, 2001, on teachers professional communities and collective sensemaking), I also analyzed meeting minutes from 46 school board meetings during the 20132014 year and, based on my analysis, then observed 15.5 hours of taped school board meeting videos (see Table 3). Additionally, I collected over 50 artifacts, including public data, brochures and flyers, policy documents, and reports. I also gathered longitudinal district data on poverty, homelessness, and mobility. Taken together, my diverse data collection allowed me to triangulate my sources (Creswell, 2007).

Table 3. Observed School Board Meetings


Meeting Type

 (Committee names slightly changed)


Community Involvement Committee


ASD School Board Meeting


Operations Committee


ASD School Board Meeting


Annual ASD District Meeting


Development Committee


ASD School Board Meeting


ASD School Board Meeting


Electors Meeting


Community Involvement Committee


Community Involvement Committee


Operations Committee


All interviews were digitally recorded, professionally transcribed, and uploaded to NVivo 10, a qualitative software program. Although all my data sources informed my findings, the 42 interviews with school and community leaders served as the backbone of my data analysis. I began with inductive data analysis, engaging in an open coding process to highlight emergent themes from the participants responses. This process required me to conduct a slow, line-by-line reading not only of each transcript but also of the key artifacts, where I paid attention to processes, actions, assumptions, and consequences (Ryan & Bernard, 2003, p. 275).

I primarily used the longitudinal data on poverty, homelessness, and mobility at the school and district level to gain a deeper understanding of trends over time. However, because some schools experienced greater increases in poverty and homelessness than others, the data were also helpful in situating school-based leaders responses. As previously mentioned, the minutes from 46 school board meetings allowed me to identify which meeting videos to observe (see Table 3). I also treated the minutes as I did the artifacts, and, coupled with my observation notes, I read through them again for emerging themes. Afterward, I used axial coding to identify relationships between all my themes and to gather the codes into groups (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Table 4 includes a list of my codes. For confidentiality reasons, I changed the name of some codes for the table.

Table 4. Codes and Connections to Sensemaking

Open Codes

Axial codes

Connections to Sensemaking & Extensions to Sensemaking*


Time in community





We are all White middle-class, middle upper class. Im trying to think if even our ELL teacher is [a] White female. I think we have one African American who works in the kitchen. Faye, educational specialist

Time in district

Leadership style

Race & class background or composition

Organizational culture

Professional background


Perceived.Changes (in the community)

Retrospective; Extracted Cues; Social; Identity


Community Identity

. . . and in that time, weve gone from probably 25% poverty to 39% . . . weve grown from probably about 10 ELL students in a typical year to almost 50 ELL students in a typical year . . . our African American population, everything else has continued to grow as well so the community as a whole is growing as well of aspects of the community. . . Bill, educational specialist





Community culture





New poor

Community culture

Perceived.Stability (in the community)

Retrospective; Extracted Cues; Social; Identity


Community Identity

You know your neighbors and you support local businesses. You support local sports. Theres that whole culture thats still the same. Marie, educational specialist

Differences from city

Individual traits

Perceived.Causes.PH (of poverty and homelessness)

Identity; Retrospective; Plausibility; Social;

Extracted Cues; Enactment; Myths

Alignment; Community Identity

My friends who are realtors, I have friends who are developers you know in town. So this is what they told me. That in 2008, when the recession hit, a lot of the landlords and developers in town put advertisements into [Big City] newspapers and billboards advertising cheap rent here and great school district and great deals, you know 6 months free if you sign a two year lease or something like that. And so it brought in a lot of really poor people who were looking for low rent, maybe a chance to get out of the cities, start new... Inga, community-based representative





New poor

Services as cause


Awareness.Group (awareness of poverty and homelessness by stakeholder group)

Social; Identity; Extracted Cues


Ive heard my acquaintances, the people I know talk about, What? Homeless people in Acreville, well, I dont see any! and its like, youre not looking very hard. Betty, general influential

School actors and district



Older White residents

Younger White residents


Public parks

Racialized.Semantics (themes where racialized language predominated)

Extracted Cues; Plausibility; Identity


I think people are just assimilating as we have a growing Hispanic population and a growing African American population. I just dont see any negative on it. We have a fantastic police department. Its not really the race but if there is any gang activity. . . Jacqueline, community-based representative



Community culture




Us vs. them

Police call rule

Responses.Actions (responses and/or actions to community change)

Identity; Enactment; Social

Alignment; Bridging

. . . at the time, she [school social worker] had 8 kids that had previously been homeless, that had just found apartments but they have literally nothing . . . and so we started collecting used mattresses, sheets, bedding, pillows, whatever we could come up with to get those kids up and off the floor. Ann, community-based representative

Recycling permits

Library rules


Community garden

Busing distances

Snacks in schools

Community schools

Umbrella nonprofits

District mission statement

School bus names

Public parks

Gas vouchers

Medal lunch

Gang task force

Holiday gifts

Individual role

Barriers to cross-sector work

Cross-Sector. Collaboration

Social; Identity


The city administration knows about us. The police know about us. The schools know about us. The churches know about us.

 Cindy, community-based representative

Collaboration facilitators

Town-county-regional collaboration

Financial resources



Alignment; Community Identity

. . . the great aspects of the community are the school district that brings a lot of people to this area. When you look at our facilities, our school facilities, our high school is amazing. Every time I am in that high school I am just in awe. Alec, general influential

Community culture




Community culture




Community Identity

We were just in front of the board trying to draw attention to the current policy of taking the tray of food away from a kid and throwing it in the garbage if they dont have a balance in their account. This is the kind of stuff our group brings to the school. This is what we heard; we dont think thats ok. It isnt equitable policy, like its discriminating against students who have limited means. . . Debbie, community-based representative


Urban model nonprofits

History of Acreville

Lack of transportation

Resistance to change

Nonprofit stipulations

Building and resisting shelter


Enactment; Social; Extracted Cues

Alignment; Bridging

I am sure that theres going to be people that are leery of it [plans to build a family shelter]. But you know, I am also seeing, as I said, the churches coming together and helping the homeless. Lynn, community-based representative

Expanding Community Schools

Building and resisting Section 8

Views on diversity and inclusion



Alignment; Bridging;

Community Identity

Yeah, I think it would be a great place to grow up and I want to make sure that those kids [food insecure/living in poverty] grow up feeling like they are part of it and this is their home. Austen, general influential

Differences from city

Community culture

Differences from rural

History of Acreville

Us vs. them

Consequences of diversity on Acreville

* The italicized Extensions to Sensemaking are not directly from Weick (1995) or Evans (2007b). Instead, they reflect areas in which the codes did not perfectly align to the available sensemaking terms. These concepts are discussed and defined in the Discussion, Significance, and Recommendations section.

Next, I examined how the themes related to sensemaking. To begin, I loosely connected my groups to the seven sensemaking properties and concepts where possible. However, to avoid allowing my theoretical framework to restrict my analysis, this was not a tightly deductive process. In other words, I recognized that not all code groups needed to map neatly to a sensemaking property or related term. Table 4 highlights how I connected my codes to sensemaking and illustrates some ways in which the codes did not perfectly align to the available sensemaking terms (see the Extensions to Sensemaking column).

The act of engaging in an interview required many participants to sense make during the interview itself. While my themes and groups to this point helped to connect the individual interviews and key artifacts to one another, I also wanted to capture the sensemaking process that unfolded during the interview. In other words, while qualitative research commonly aims to capture the views and experiences of individuals, applying a sensemaking approach foregrounds the process of interpreting their experiences. As a result, I reread the transcripts along with my field notes, with a focus on the overarching sensemaking process, goals, and acts. In other words, I now examined the transcripts (aided with my field notes) for how participants aimed to restore the feeling of order, clarity, and rationality (Weick, 1995, p. 29) over the course of the interview. Discussed in the Findings section, Table 5 illustrates an example of sensemaking within an interview.

Table 5. Sensemaking Within an Interview

Interviewer: [asking about awareness of poverty and homelessness]

Interview with: Anne, educational specialist


. . .but I think there are people who worry whether we are a magnet because were so good at offering services here. Are we a magnet for more and more kids who need the services?

Interviewer: Who do you hear that from? Is that like from within the school district or from the community?


Anne: I hear that from the community. Ive heard now that were going to [store name] closed down and theres a big building and so they want to open up [charity shops] right on Main Street. Is that over turning into Acreville, Acreville turning into a place for homeless people and people who have nothing and thats very visible on main streets. . . . So you still have some of that; that negativity, I dont think youll ever get away from that.

Later in Interview...


Interviewer: As weve been talking about, in recent years, Acreville has experienced rising poverty and homelessness, what do you think accounts for or has contributed to these changes?


Anne: What has contributed to that?

Interviewer: Yes


Anne: I just think that were a magnet here. Number one, were a magnet because we because we often get services and we have a great school system.

Interviewer: And the school system?


Anne: And the school system. There was a report maybe 5 or 10 years ago about how there were signs that in some of the poverty [areas] in [City X] saying Come to Acreville and gave them housing numbers. Now whether or not that was a rumor, that was going around town here like crazy.

During rereading of the transcripts, stories emerged across the themes and groups. In particular, familiar patterns arose within participants perspectives on the causes of rising poverty and homelessness (and other changes), how Acreville was defined (including thoughts on the consequences of changes), and ideas as to what Acreville should do next (see Findings for more information on the narratives and Table 6 for these themes across the narratives). Here, I drew loosely from a constant comparison approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), where I kept checking whether the emerging narratives were the same or different than the ones already identified. Because leaders often spoke about the sensemaking of others in contrast to themselves, sometimes more than one narrative emerged out of individual transcripts. Finally, I reread my school board observation notes with the narratives in mind. In a couple instances, interview participants made references to particular school board meetings, which also allowed me to triangulate my data. In Table 7, I provide examples of how I triangulated my findings across various data sources.

Table 6. Table of Themes Across the Narratives


The Magnet Narrative

The Rainmaker Narrative

The Savior Narrative

The Old Boys Club Narrative



Recession; growth

Individual flaws

Need more data; unclear if there is a change.


Those who conform to current culture


Those who respond to help as desired

White, middle class


Changes are wearing away at small-town feel; no need for more services or changes to services.

Increased diversity is making Acreville a better place to live; need for more services to combat poverty and homelessness

Need for more services to help people change

Need more data; unclear if more services are needed.

Response.Actions & Potential.Next.Steps

Resisting change; Section 8; shelter; library rules

Community garden; one-stop shop; community schools

Services/help with stipulations

Learn more/investigate/

task forces

Narrative Description

Acrevilles services, affordable rental housing, and good services served as a magnet to draw poor and unstably housed families into town. With racial undertones, the Magnet narrative was about ensuring that only responsible people resided and thrived in Acreville. Rather than Acreville needing to adjust services to better serve families, families had to conform to Acrevilles rules.

Racial diversity is an asset, and Acreville is a growing community that needs to change services to better meet families needs. Extensive cross-sector collaboration is crucialand school leaders are often cited as trailblazers in this regard. Meaningful cross-sector action led to a number of programs and practices that were unique for the suburbs, including community schools and a one-stop shop for services.

In this narrative, there is recognition of community change and a desire to help, but the well-intentioned responses are not always in the best interest of those in need. Sometimes other leaders viewed the actions of those guided by the Savior narrative to be self-serving, counterproductive, or stigmatizing.

In this narrative, often associated with the local government, there is a lack of awareness, or, more important, a lack of willingness to be aware of the changes in poverty and homelessness. Acreville, in this imagery, is still viewed as a middle-class community with little to no evidence of poverty and homelessness; this perception of Acreville was used to justify inaction.

Sample Quote #1

I think the tension lies in the fact that 10,000 people have moved here in the past 10 years, and there is a real, you know, and somewhat legitimate fear that the face of the community is changing to something that people dont know what its going to become, and I think that renters and new residents have really taken the brunt of that tension. Austen, general influential

We can still be an intimate, very special community, we can still have all the small-town values that are so central to Acreville. We can still care about our football team and our basketball team. . . we can still have a homeless shelter and reach out to at-risk kids. We can still feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and still be who we are.

Jim, community-based representative

Right, and also like I cantyoure offering, you know, meals or assistance but I have to go to your church on Sunday? Like what if I have my own thing I do, you know.

Dominique educational specialist

So unfortunately, weve hidden it too well. I mean you dont have to see the poverty in Acreville unless you drive off the beaten tracks. And people are shocked. Amazingly enough, its the people, the original Acreville people that have been born and raised here that are the most shocked. I think people that have come in are a little bit more open-minded to it maybe. Ann, community-based representative

Sample Quote # 2

There are a lot of people who are afraid that once you build a homeless shelter here, youd get homeless people. So that its like, you know, you are hitting that wall to make them understand, no thats not how it works, you know.

Inga, community-based representative

This school rocks, like there is 40 different languages spoken. A quarter of our population, ELL, how awesome is that? Like, I would totally have my kids go to this school, you know. And so, I think that diversity is a good thing. I definitely heard, Dont send your kids to Lakehill. Lakehills the bad school. I mean it definitely has a reputation you know. And . . . we have the highest number of transient population so kids moving in and out which goes with low income, homeless obviously.

Dominique, educational specialist

I wanted that older child to see how blessed he is and to lets bewe need to be thinking about other folks. I mean, Im alwaysIm all about relationships and why were put on this earth is to be there for our fellow men so he did. He was a trooper. He helped, you know, he helped my husband. We were able to get them a TV and tables and a coffee table and a bed and bunk bed for the boys and mattress for mom and kitchen stuff. . .

Julia, educational specialist

. . . like, at the city government level. . . I think that they have a very myopic pro-business growth stance and that that really is the only thing thats really on their radar, despite many efforts by community groups and others to encourage them to look a bit more globally at whats going on in the community.

Debbie, community-based representative

Table 7. Triangulation Across Data Sources

Busing Distances

Interview Excerpt 1

Oh, me and another high school teacherwe [went] up in front of everyone and we didnt know each other was going to do this but we advocated and said we really need to change the busing boundaries to be less because you know, Im seeing these high school students in the dead of winter, walking to school and here we already have kids who dont have the resources already. Theyre really like, you know, behind and were putting in another notch in their belt as if like okay, not only are you [not] eating breakfast but then you have to walk a mile in frigid weather to school or a mile and a half and so anyway, that ended up getting changed. So that was like, Yay!

Sarah, community-based representative

Interview Excerpt 2

. . . the community last year talked about busing and busing distances and thatit used to be two and a half miles you know, for some of like theThe distance as well is different, its like one and a half for the high school, two for the middle schools and I dont know what the distance was for elementary and these were the bus alone and if you live close to them you have to walk. So it would cost a lot of money but the community said make those walks down smaller and in some cases there were even talks about eliminate them, like bring the kids to school. Just bring the kids to school as if were talking about you know, these gaps and what not like everything is first bring them to school like that would be step number one in solving the problem. Anyway, I felt like that was a credit to the school because they did set up the annual meeting, the electors voted on it and they changed it right then and there and again, that impacts their taxes and yet theyre willing to say for these purpose, you know, were willing to pay slightly more in taxes if it means that our kids are getting this great education.

Jenny, educational specialist

Artifacts and other data

PowerPoint on walk distance requirements for surrounding districts; School board meeting agendas and minutes on 9/30/13; 10/14/13; 11/12/13.


Observation of school board meetings on 9/30/12; 10/14/13; 11/12/13


Sarah suggests she stood up to make the case for changing the bus distances on the grounds of equity. She implies that changes were based on this argument by not suggesting otherwise. Jenny argues that the changes were made right then and there because it had to do with providing a quality education, not necessarily equity. Observations of school board meeting agendas, artifacts, minutes, and videos suggest that this was not an easy decision. While many arguments were raised, the predominant discussion at the school board meetings revolved around safety, quality, and cost rather than equity. The superintendent did make the equity argument during a PowerPoint presentation, as did a teacher. In the meetings I observed, Sarah did not make public statements.  


Eventually, the decision was reached to bus more students at the taxpayers expensea victory for students in subsidized housing. Sarah implies that the decision was made on ideological equity groundshowever, observations of school board meetings reveal that the debate was more about education quality, the costs to taxpayers, and concerns over crime and safety than about poverty and justice. Although some stakeholders felt that equity was a nonissuereflecting the Old Boys Clubconcerns about children getting beaten up on their walk to school best reflected the Magnet narratives fears about crime. Although the Rainmaker narrative provided a counter-perspective, the transportation policy was not a strong example of the community responding proactively to socioeconomic changes.

Perceptions of Crime

Interview Excerpt 1

Yeah, it is probably an uptick . . . I have been here my whole life . . . I dont think peoples property is as safe. I think its still the same with [what] we call property crimes, theft, property is as safe. I think its still the same with [what] we call property crimes, theft, vandalism. I dont think that has gone up disproportionately. It has risen in total number, in aggregate number, but its proportionate to our population growth. But people certainly, its definitely a concern of theirs.

 Jessie, general influential

Interview Excerpt 2

Weve started to experience the same things that inner cities experience and this is not related to any one particular group or culture but . . . weve had more students with drug issues, weve had more crime, break-ins. . . .As we grow, we also take on some of those same characteristics of a more urban community so I think the safety part has changed.

Marie, educational specialist

Artifacts and other data

Map of neighborhood police calls; City-Data.com; Communitycrimemap.com; Gang task force preliminary findings.


Observation of school board meetings on 9/30/12; 10/14/13; 11/12/13.


Jessie reveals uncertainty around crime. Marie notes perceived changes in the schools with safety. Other data suggest that crime has not risen proportionately (as Jessie also notes). Jessie mentions that people are concerned about crime, which is also evidenced in Maries quote and in the start of a gang task force by the local government.


Concerns over crime and gangs are not justified by data. Fear of crimes and gangs loomed large in the Magnet narrative.

Billboard Advertisements

Interview Excerpt 1

There are a number of landlords in the area that started advertising in inner city X and inner city Y, inviting people to come herewe have great services, come come& I think they kind of exploded our population of families in poverty well before we are able to be ready to handle it. So, I think it took people by surprise, like all of a sudden, one gothe school social workers are working 60 hours a week and trying to help all these families and just not even making a dent. . .

 Ann, community-based representative

Interview Excerpt 2

You know, there has been some tension with race too, something that people will talk about Im not sure. The truth of this is that there was Section 8 housing developers advertising in City X with billboards to draw more people here. And then theyre making a connection between [the] increase in criminal activity.

Austen, general influential

Interview Excerpt 3

The other myth, the other urban mythology is they come here from City X or City Y and I hear this mythology, oh theres a sign in City X that says go to Acreville. Its like urban myth . . . I know its like it is an authentic urban myth. So theres data, what this data shows you is that these kids come equally from all over the place and like they are from California and Oregon and Gambia. I mean its really interesting data, you know, the majority are from City Z just because of location but it really was down to the well, some of the mythology of who the new kids are.

Robert, educational specialist

Artifacts and other data

Housing choice voucher waitlist data; school district data on mobility and new students.


Ann suggests that the billboards are the cause of a sudden rise of poverty and homelessness and are why the school social workers are overworked. She suggests that Acreville was not prepared because it was sudden. Austen also discusses the billboards and makes connections to racial changes and increased crime. Robert, however, suggests that the billboards are a myth and connects the myth to the new students in the district and where they have moved.  Housing choice voucher waitlist data and school district data on mobility and the new students also provide counter information.


There does not appear to be any evidenceoutside of reports in some interviewsthat the billboards existed. Other interviews suggest it is folklore. Housing data, artifacts, and interviews with the county housing authority revealed that there was more migration from the local county to the inner city county than the other way around.  And of the more than 450 families on the county Housing Choice Voucher wait list, 87% already lived in the local area code, suggesting that families were not coming to Acreville from outside the area for affordable housing. Likewise, district data suggest that new students come to the district from a range of locations, and not predominantly City X or City Y.  The idea of the billboards was widely held and featured prominently in the data, fueling the Magnet narrative.

In addition to triangulation and my multistep data analysis process, I also employed additional strategies to help ensure reliability and validity. First, I was aware of how my positionality could influence the study. Because the majority of my interview participants were White and middle class, I believe that my racial and socioeconomic status (as a White middle-class female) probably engendered trust and facilitated my data collection process. That said, I did have participants mention to me that they knew I was not from around here. In this vein, that I was born and raised in a different state seemed to foster a sense of distance between some of the participants and myself. Second, I kept detailed records of my decisions and interpretations. Throughout the data analysis process, I was also in ongoing discussions about the emerging themes with colleagues who were well versed in qualitative research and the poverty and homelessness literature.  To help ensure transparency, I provide a detailed outline of my data collection and analysis processes. Furthermore, to support my findings and enable the reader to judge the transferability of my findings to other settings, I present rich descriptions of participants accounts and the broader context (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).


I identified four narratives: the Magnet, Rainmaker, Savior, and Old Boys Club. Except for the Rainmaker narrative, the other three names stem directly from the words of the participants. These narratives reflected the ways in which people 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. Participants sometimes evoked more than one narrative in a single interviewparticularly when discussing how they thought other people understood events. My purpose was not to classify and label each leader as belonging to one and only one narrative group; instead of reflecting individuals, the narratives represent broad ways of thinking in the community. Taken together, they 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. I discuss each narrative in turn and then highlight how the narratives intersected in practice.


A total of 20 out of 42 interview participants discussed the Magnet narrativeeither personally embodying it or recognizing that this was a way that others made sense of change. Of the 20 leaders, eight were community representatives, six were school employees, and six were general influentials. In this narrative, Acrevilles services, affordable rental housing, and good schools served as a magnet to draw poor and unstably housed families into town. With racial undertones, the Magnet narrative was about ensuring that only responsible people resided and thrived in Acreville. Rather than Acreville needing to adjust services to better serve families, families had to conform to Acrevilles rules. Anne, a White school employee and lifelong resident of Acreville, described the Magnet narrative in detail. She initially suggested that other people make sense of socioeconomic change through this rationale: I think there are people who worry whether we are a magnet because were so good at offering services here. Are we a magnet for more and more kids who need services? Yet, as she continued to discuss her thoughts and make sense of her experiences, she herself also claimed a strong affiliation with the narrative, stating, I just think that were a magnet here. Number one, were a magnet because we often get services and we have a great school system (see also Table 5). For Anne, that antipoverty services were increasingly visible downtown was a root cause of rising poverty and homelessness. Anne remembers when Acreville had one traffic light and now notes the change[s] Ive seen is the number of kids who are homeless. With racial undertones, she worries about the future: I think we dont want to lose what we have . . . with all these changes and then the diversity of people that were getting, how do you maintain that small town feel?

As mentioned by Anne, and nearly a quarter of all leaders, rumor had it that scrupulous landlords plastered advertisements about Acreville in two of the nearby high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods located outside the metropolitan area. These billboards served to advertise how Acreville was the perfect place to live, and leaders associated the billboards with increases in racial diversity, homelessness, poverty, crime, and gangs (see the bottom of Table 7). New students to the school district, who, compared with the current students, were more likely to be low-income students of color (see Table 8), were also connected to these billboards. However, a couple of interviewees revealed that the billboards were most likely town folklore. As Table 8 shows, of the students who were new to the district in 20122013, only 2.3% of them moved to Acreville from either of the two cities where the billboards were apparently plastered (Cities X and Y). Interestingly, only 3.3% of new students in Acreville emigrated from other countries, and 16.4% of students migrated from nonbordering states. Nearly 35% of new students moved from within the same metropolitan district, of which 22.6% came from the principal city (City Z). Coupled with district data, housing data, artifacts, and interviews with the county housing authority revealed that there was more migration from the local county to City Ys county than the other way around. And of the more than 450 families on the county Housing Choice Voucher wait list, 87% already lived in the local area code, suggesting that families were not coming to Acreville from outside the area for affordable housing. The myth of the billboards persisted, however, shaping how occupants in public housing were perceived and molding policy perspectives.

Table 8. School District Data on New Students


Free & Reduced Lunch

% African American

% Asian

% White

% Hispanic

% 2 or more races

Entire District







New Students (20122013)








Previous Residence (20122013)

In State


Bordering State #1                         3.1%

Same metropolitan area


*Large city in nearby metropolitan area in bordering state #1 [City X]


Principal city in same metropolitan area as Acreville (medium sized) [City Z]


Bordering State #2                          1.6%

Within same metropolitan area as Acreville but outside principal city


Other States                                    16.4%

*Large city in nearby metropolitan area in same state as Acreville [City Y]


Other Countries                               3.3%

*Cities mentioned by interview participants as places where billboards were plastered.

Crime, Gangs, Safety, and Race

Fears over crime, gangs, and safety loomed large in the Magnet narrative and were connected to the rise in poverty and racial diversity. A White police officer, Jessie, who lived in the Acreville his entire life, highlighted these fears. As he made sense of events, he recognized that crime had not risen disproportionately but did not think peoples property was as safe as it was in the past. Yet, according to City-Data.com, both Acrevilles violent crime rate and the property crime rate (per 100,000 people) dropped between 2001 and 2012from 79.7 to 75.8 for violent crime and from 255.6 to 171.2 for property crime.

Yeah, it is probably an uptick . . . I have been here my whole life . . . I dont think peoples property is as safe. I think its still the same with [what] we call property crimes, theft, vandalism. I dont think that has gone up disproportionately. It has risen in total number, in aggregate number, but its proportionate to our population growth. But people certainly, its definitely a concern of theirs.

Jessie also exemplified common race-based semantics in the Magnet narrative; he declared that increasing diversity is a positive change for Acreville while simultaneously suggesting that incoming residents may have inferior beliefs or ethical standards.  

they [community] have been very accepting of people of different colors, people with different socioeconomic backgrounds, maybe people with slightly different morals, different subcultures . . . the influx of these folks, in my personal opinion [and] I think that most people would agree, if you talked to them about it, its for the better.

Concerns about crime and safety also extended to the school district. Marie, a White school leader had who worked in the district for over 20 years, suggested,

Weve started to experience the same things that inner cities experience, and this is not related to any one particular group or culture but . . . weve had more students with drug issues, weve had more crime, break-ins. . . . As we grow, we also take on some of those same characteristics of a more urban community, so I think the safety part has changed.

Others noted how the district was caught off guard by the influx of students who didnt want to learn or were members of a gang. Accompanying this preoccupation with crime and safety, Acreville created a task force to explore the gang issue in town. Early task force findings suggested the presence of cliques but not the territory-based activity that is often a central feature of city gangs. Despite this finding, many leaders continued to be concerned about gangs.

Town Library

Beyond the gang task force, in many other instances, the Magnet narrative infiltrated local policy, programs, and practicesoften in ways that created barriers for families. For instance, certain students and families were routinely excluded from the town library. Because students library cards are linked to their parents, when anyone in the family owed the library over $20, no one in the family was allowed to check out books or use the Internet. This creates substantial obstacles for families living in homeless shelters or experiencing homelessness in doubled-up contexts, who may rely on the library to search for jobs, find housing, or complete homework. Tiki, a White librarian, noted that urban areas often provide limited-use cards but that Acreville has different rules for families. For students to receive library cards, parents cards must be in good standing. Tiki had less trouble settling the accounts of middle-class families who could provide the money up front, and she worked on a case-by-case basis with other families to devise a payment plan if they are willing to accept the blame and do not have a whole story to go with it. Some parents who owed money were not contacted, however, and the student was simply denied a card. She explained,

I often talk to teachers . . . Ill say like, this child, and this child theres some issues. And theyll be like, that one dont even try . . . theyre in and out of foster care, you know like, there are a lot of other issues at play there and were just glad that they make it to school once in a whileyou know, [that] sort of thing.

Tiki worked with teachers to decide which students should not be given a library card simply because of their home situation. Children awaiting foster care placements were homeless under NCLBs MVAand they may have substantial trouble accessing books or a steady Internet connection. Yet, they were the very students sometimes denied full access to vital educational resources.

Although Tiki worked in Acreville for almost eight years, she did not live in Acreville. She did, however, declare, This is my community, and she defensively explained how she lived just on the outskirts, open-enrolled her child in the ASD, and was trying to secure an Acreville address but could not sell her house because of the market crash. Even though Tiki herself was not living in the zip code for economic reasons, she still justified her belonging andas symbolized by the library cardserved as a gatekeeper to Acreville membership for others.

Housing Policy and Homelessness

The Magnet narrative was also strikingly evident in discussions of housing policy and homelessness. Returning to Anne, she said,

Theres a strip in Acreville where there are like 12 units and the owner wants to turn that over to make Section 8 housing. So its like, Well, have you talked to anybody . . . where will those kids be going to school? . . .many have special needs, may [be] transient type kids maybe. Have you talked to anybody about how this is going to impact the schools? And do we want Section 8 housing? Do we need more of that here in town?

Just as in the library, the focus was on excluding and marginalizing some children and families from Acrevilles resources.

To some leaders, the Magnet narrative impacted student homelessness. Juno, a White school social worker who has worked in the district for over 20 years, discussed the police call rule, where police officers worked with landlords to oversee who entered and stayed in low-income housing. She argued that the rule made students and families afraid to call the police in domestic situations, led to evictions even for families who were paying rent, and then increased the length of homelessness because families could not find affordable housing afterward. For Juno, the doubling and tripling of homelessness she was witnessing could be partly attributed to having more families getting kicked out, getting put out of their housing. The police call rule led Juno to meet with law enforcementbest exemplifying the Rainmaker narrative.


The Rainmaker narrative, discussed by 14 leaders, the majority of whom were in the schools (n = 6), suggested a very different picture of Acreville. The term rainmaker is applied here to highlight the narratives emphasis on getting things done rather than to suggest an association with financial resources. In this narrative, racial diversity was an asset, and Acreville was a growing community that needed to change services to better meet families needs. Extensive cross-sector collaboration was crucialand school leaders were often cited as trailblazers in this regard. Meaningful cross-sector action led to a number of programs and practices that were unique for the suburbs, including community schools and a one-stop-shop for services.

Identity, Geography, and Leadership

In the Rainmaker narrative, there was an emphasisparticularly for school leaderson guiding how the rest of the community understands and responds to homelessness, poverty, and community change. For instance, Faye, a White school social worker who had worked in the district for less than three years, discussed how the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) did not truly understand homelessness in Acreville. However, when a homeless family of five needed $250 to secure housing, she shared just a little bit with them [the PTO], opened up their eyes a little bit more to oh, these things are actually happening in our community . . . and they wrote a check that day. Guiding the community also extended beyond homelessness to broader community change. For instance, Jack, a White school leader who worked in the district for more than four years, explained,

This used to be . . . more a farmer town, wasnt necessarily called a suburb; it was outside. Now its a suburb of a bigger city and those changing demographics have meant some of the old school thought folks that have lived here their entire lives say, Well, thats not the way it used to be here. So we do fight some of that mentality sometimes . . . we have to try to counsel those kinds of families away from that sort of thought pattern. . .

To Jack, community change influenced his sense of self as a leader. His language pays homage to his attempts to guide the sensemaking of others by fight[ing] some of that mentality and counsel[ing] those kinds of families to adjust their worldviews. The use of fight and counsel also stand in contrast to one anotherreflecting both the severity of the tension and the proactive attempts to guide others.

Jack suggested that the long-time residents were the most resistant to change. Similarly, others noted that those who were well rooted in Acreville were shocked when informed about homelessness or, as Lynn discussed, the most strongly against the possibility of opening a homeless shelter in Acreville because they might not see the issues behind the door. On the other hand, those who were not born and raised here brought with them outside perspectives that better aligned to the realities of contemporary Acreville. For instance, a couple of leaders discussed moving to or deciding to work in Acreville precisely because they thought it was racially and socioeconomically diverse. Interestingly, Jack also spoke as a we rather than an I in discussing the task of the district in changing the perceptions of others in the community. As illustrated in Table 6, reshaping, realigning, and reconfirming the identity of Acreville was central to the Rainmaker narrative and often intertwined with how leaders viewed services such as homeless shelters and food pantries. A number of policies, programs, and practices in the district and community also reflected the emphasis on community identity.

Cross-Sector Collaboration

Many of the actions of the Acreville school district best illustrated the Rainmaker narrative. For instance, ASD decided to revamp its mission statement to better align with the changing community. Elena, an Asian school social worker who worked in the district for less than three years, discussed this collaborative process: Everybody coming in and having these huge conversations about how we want our district to look like and what we want our district to be like. The mission statement rewrite was also an opportunity for the district to guide the broader community in their interpretation of events. As Robert, a White central office leader, explained, If everybody knows everything and is pointed in the right direction, it can be really powerful.

Foundational to the Rainmaker narrative was the community schools initiative (raised by 20 interview participants) and the one-stop shop for services (discussed by 32 interview participants). In the community schools initiative, a partnership was forged between a community-based organization and the district in an attempt to address the wide needs of children and families, such as English language literacy, tutoring, and resource inequities. One site allowed parents to use computersa key resource for homeless families. As Samantha, a White general influential who was new to Acreville, explained,

a lot of different organizations are working together because they recognize that to serve people in poverty . . . you need to bring as many resources together . . . and I think the different groups are being more proactive about educating the decision makers in the community as a whole . . . not just to let them know that this is whats happening, but to really respond and serve the people that need to be served.

Reflecting the Rainmaker narrative, community schools not only adjusted services to meet needs but also created opportunities for leaders to educate others about poverty and homelessness.

Similarly, the one-stop shop for social services was an umbrella organization for antipoverty groups that were all housed on site and accessibly located in town. The number of students identified as homeless was presented in their marketing materials, and they worked closely with the school district to connect students and families to food, clothing, and housing assistance. Some services, such as the mattresses program, which distributed free beds to children experiencing homelessness, began after school social workers told them that they had students who were unable to concentrate in school because of their living conditions.


Although the Magnet and Rainmaker narratives were the most widely mentioned, the Saviors also emerged from the data. The Savior narrative was raised by seven leaders and most often discussed by school actors about some of the community leaders. Here, there was recognition of community change and a desire to help, but the well-intentioned responses were not always in the best interest of those in need. Sometimes other leaders viewed the actions of those guided by the Savior narrative to be as self-serving, counterproductive, or stigmatizing.

Stigmatizing Practices

The Savior narrative was evident in various policy and programmatic responses. For instance, school leaders discussed how the Saviors wished to ensure that students in poverty and homelessness received holiday gifts, but they wanted to deliver the presents themselves and bring their own children (who attend school with the students) in order to teach their children a lesson. Many times, school leaders felt it necessary to protect families experiencing poverty and homelessness from these types of stigmatizing events.

Although the district was often at the forefront of positive change, certain school practices and even ASD policies also created barriers for students and families experiencing homelessness. For instance, in some schools, the secretary would call the students experiencing homelessness over the loudspeaker when their rides became availablea stigmatizing event that was discussed and intercepted by school social workers at a districtwide meeting. Faye, a White school social worker, also discussed how the district wanted the social workers to meet families experiencing homelessness at the gas pump in order to reimburse them for transporting their children to school by car. According to Faye, the district pushed this policy change because the central office thought it would be a good opportunity for social workers to connect with families. Yet, not only was this policy time consuming, it was also problematic: As social workers, were pretty well known in the communities . . . when were showing up at the gas station to meet three or four of our families, now all of a sudden those families know, yeah theyre a homeless family too. Faye suggested that there was an undercurrent of fear that if social workers were not present, families experiencing homelessness would use the money for fooda position she believed social workers disregarded.

If they decide to use it for bananas and use their own money for gas and theyre still getting their kids to school, okay . . . from a social worker kind of aspect were just like, So what? If theyre getting their kids to school and the kid happens to get some milk that week, why are we going to make such a big deal out of that?

To reduce stigma, the district changed its policy, providing families experiencing homelessness with a voucher that could be handed in at the gas station.

With homelessness, school social workers played a proactive role in combating the Savior narrative and integrating responsiveness, and awareness, and sensitivity into school and district policies and practices. According to Juno, this critical awareness was fostered by their direct relationship with students experiencing homelessness who talk about . . . how it affects them . . . what that feels like to them when other students talk and staff members do not intervene.

The Savior narrative was also evident in housing assistance for families experiencing homelessness. Callie, a White community provider, epitomized this narrative:

Now weve had families that have come in and say they want to change, but they are really looking at us to find them housing and kind of meet their needs and then their interests. They are really not interested in change because one of our philosophies is that true lasting change comes from a relationship with God.

Unlike the Magnet narrative, the Savior narrative was not about keeping people out of Acreville; instead, there was a well-intentioned and active desire to help and respond. However, the actions associated with this narrative could pose obstacles for families experiencing homelessness who may not feel comfortable with the religious stipulations (even though they need housing).


Last, 10 leaders discussed the Old Boys Club narrative, which was often associated with the local governmentand in particular, with White males who held considerable power in town. Liz, a White general influential who had lived in the community for nearly 30 years, explained that there was still the good old boys network in Acreville. To defend this comment, Liz noted how the local political television show was run by two White male general influentials and how they invited mainly other White men . . . who have a voice in the community as guests on the program. She argued that the good old boys network was as strong as ever and unlikely to dissolve. Jim, a community representative, used the phrase the old boys club to discuss why families living in poverty could face challenges in Acreville. Such challenges stemmed from the fact that in this narrative, there was a lack of awareness, or, more important, a lack of willingness to be aware of the changes in poverty and homelessness. Acreville, in this imagery, was still viewed as a middle-class community with little to no evidence of poverty and homelessness; this perception of Acreville was used to justify inaction.  

The Old Boys Club narrative was well exemplified in an interview with Alec, a White general influential. I asked Alec why he thought the school district numbers on poverty and homelessness were on the rise:

Its hard to know . . . the mayor, this was his initiative to find out . . . what kind of gang activity we are having . . . so I thinkI am notI am not correlating poverty to gangs but what I am saying is I dont think we know exactly what is happening in the community . . . so what we are finding is that there is not a lot of data, and I think that is how I am connecting it to poverty is I dont know how much data is being   collected as far as poverty goes so we can understand what we have . . . and then can react to it.

Alecs response suggested that there is not enough data to react to potential poverty increasesdespite the existence of rising district numbers. He argued that it would be premature to respond until the data were better understood.

Debbie, a White community representative, felt that the government had a myopic stance despite many efforts by community groups and others to encourage them to look a little bit more globally at whats going on in their community. According to Debbie, community groups tried to encourage the government to view Acreville differently, but these attempts were largely unsuccessful. Debbie declared that the outgoing mayor was not exactly on team social justice. She hoped that a couple of relatively newer government influentialsincluding Austenwould be able to kind of poke these [social justice] issues into the political consciousness. Austen, however, noted that the government was not even talking about homelessness. As she explained, I cant say that Ive heard a real dialogue about homelessness. I actually cant say that Ive seen a whole lot of information about the actual numbers. Jay, a White general influential who lived in the community his entire life, explained that the government wouldnt believe the fact that the school district told them there were 300 homeless families. Theyd [the government] say, where are they? We dont see them! . . . again, they prefer to not see whats there. He argued that the government does not have a political future in attending to poverty and homelessness, which helped to explain their inaction.  

Despite these challenges, Austen hoped that the government could work with the schools in the future to address homelessness proactively. Although the good old boys network may be hard to break down, the political climate could grow more hospitable to dialogue and purposeful government action in the future as general influentials such as Austen, Liz, and even Jay continue to recognize and critique the Old Boys Club narrative. The Old Boys Club, however, was not in isolation; often it interacted with the Magnet, Rainmaker, and Savior narratives, creating ideological tensions.


Garnering power over how Acreville was perceived and who was valued within the community was a crucial issue in the Magnet, Rainmaker, Savior, and Old Boys Club narratives. The process of negotiating and reconstructing Acreville came particularly to the forefront when the narratives interacted in local policy, programs, and practices.  These interactions shaped opportunities for families experiencing poverty and homelessness. I present three key examples of these narrative intersectionsthe districts transportation policy, the school and businesses medal lunch, and the recycling permits. In each case, leaders attempted to wield power over and negotiate Acrevilles identity, membership, and path for the future.

One policy issue that electors in ASD raised to the school board was the distance at which students were eligible for a school bus. This event reflected the interactions between the Old Boys Club, Magnet, and Rainmaker narratives. Sarah, a White community provider who lived in Acreville for more than 10 years, explained how a neighborhood of low income housing was right outside the boundary and so their children had to walk, while the other kids have cars. Eventually, the decision was reached to bus more students at the taxpayers expensea victory for students in subsidized housing. Sarah implied that the decision was made on ideological equity grounds; however, observations of school board meetings reveal that the debate was more about education quality, the costs to taxpayers, and concerns over crime and safety than about poverty and justice. Although some stakeholders felt that equity was a nonissuereflecting the Old Boys Clubconcerns about children getting beaten up on their walk to school best reflected the Magnet narratives fears about crime. Although the Rainmaker narrative provided a counter-perspective, the transportation policy was not a strong example of the community responding proactively to socioeconomic changes. However, the process of setting the transportation policy unearthed many of the tensions and power struggles over the type of community Acreville was and wanted to be going forward.

In contrast, the medal lunch, where ASD and local businesses worked together to reward students who handed in all their schoolwork on time, was different. In response to socioeconomic change in the district, a number of school employees voiced dissatisfaction with the event. Returning to Anne, a White school leader and lifelong Acreville resident who spoke at length about how services are a magnet:

A lot of people are saying, its not fair, there are kids who come from poor homes, unstructured homes, and youre penalizing them because they are not getting their work in on time. . . So this big program that had run for years and years was disbanded, and very unfortunately I think, because I think youve got to set standards for kids . . . even if you come from a dysfunctional family, you have to learn to rise above that dysfunction.

Here, Annes sensemaking about broader poverty shaped how she saw services in her organization. Based on resistance from teachers, the long-running program, which required the compliance of school actors, was reworked. Because this change conflicted with the Magnet narratives resistance to adapting services to meet needs, the medal lunch highlighted the ways in which the power to shape Acrevilles future was negotiated.

The recycling permit policy also illustrated the Magnet and Rainmaker interaction. Austen, a White general influential and recent Acreville transplant, uncovered that the government denied recycling center permits to 100 families living in subsidized housing a Magnet-like attempt to create barriers. After she gathered key stakeholders and created a space for them to reconsider the policy, the families received their permits. Much like a library card, the permits symbolized Acreville membership. As Austen explained, When youre a young person who is with their parents in the car and youre turned away from the recycling centers . . . you start to feel that you dont belong in the community, that no one cares. Thus, the policy change symbolized a renegotiation of who is valued in Acreville. With the narratives outlined, I turn now to the discussion, significance, and recommendations.


Over the past two generations, the achievement gap between children from wealthy families and those from poor families has widened considerablyposing challenges to the narrative of equal opportunity and the American Dream (Center on Children and Families, 2016; Snellman et al., 2015). Although historically, the suburbs have been associated with the American Dream, today, many confront rising poverty and homelessness without the needed infrastructure and supports necessary to meet families needs (Allard, 2004; Miller & Bourgeois, 2013; A. Murphy & Wallace, 2010). Surprisingly, Acreville was home to a number of innovative programs, practices, and services. In some ways, Acreville could serve as a model to other communitiesat least on paper. Yet, matters related to community identity, class, race, and geographic space often thwarted the full potential of these well-intentioned responses. In this section, I connect my findings to sensemaking and outline the significance of this study to theory, return to the extant literature on suburban poverty and family homelessness, and discuss recommendations.


Weicks (1995) emphasis on individual and organizational sensemaking was particularly useful in considering how leaders are embedded within organizations such as districts and nonprofits. In the context of education, Evans (2007b) devoted explicit attention to identity characteristics that help shape worldviews while simultaneously recognizing the importance of local context and organizational ideology. Some educational research has also addressed collective sensemaking, focusing particularly on the ways in which sensemaking is social and co-constructedsuch as in the context of school-based professional learning communities (Coburn, 2001). Yet, both Evans (2007b) and Coburn (2001) bound their data within school walls. My study, however, examines sensemaking at the cross-sector, community level. This is similar to the concept of an organizational field, where the focus is not only on a single type of organization but also on all the types of organizations that are involved in a certain activity (Burch, 2007; Emirbayer & Johnson, 2008; Powell & DiMaggio, 1991). Given this, I discuss my findings at three levels: the organization, individual, and community.

Organizational Level

Importantly, there were organizational connotations associated with the narratives. For instance, the Old Boys Club was often discussed in connection with the government. Likewise, the Savior narrative was pinned to some religious institutions and even to a few of the nonprofit organizations that fell under the umbrella of the one-stop shop.

Although there were digressions within the district, the ASD, as an organization, took a lead role in the Rainmaker narrativea narrative that sometimes molded outcomes in ways that facilitated positive educational opportunities. In the context of Thayer (1988), the school district often assumed the role of institutional sensegiver and meaningmaker for the communityaiming to shape the perceptions of others. Likewise, the district served to buffer families experiencing poverty and homelessness from the perceived impacts of the Savior narrative.

Individual Level

I also found that the identities of individuals play an important role in shaping sensemaking. Weick (1995) emphasized that sensemaking is grounded in identity construction because depending on who I am, my definition of what is out there will also change (p. 20). Evans (2007b) made inroads in this direction; she highlighted the importance of school leaders multiple identities (such as race, class, gender, and professional position). These identities shape worldviews that impact how leaders perceive themselves and how they interpret, make sense of, and treat others (p. 184). Race and class emerged across the narratives in this study. The interview participants themselves were not racially or socioeconomically diverse (more than 95% of all participants were White, and all were in steady employment in leadership positions), but they did cocreate narratives about Acreville that merged notions around identity and geographic space with race and class.

Furthermore, there was an underlying tension around who counts as an Acrevillianand who should have the power to shape the communitys future. Beyond race and class undertones, leaders also discussed formidable rifts within the White middle class. Although not always the case, residents who spent their entire lives in Acreville or could trace their family tree back generations were often perceived by others to be more resistant to, shocked by, or unaware of community changein other words, to be part of the old school thought folks. In contrast, individuals who had lived in Acreville for at least a few years (but not their whole lives) often noted that they still felt like outsiders but that their external experiences provided them with a fresh(er) frame in responding to change. Thus, length of time in the community emerged as an important individual identity that was perceived to influence how they themselves and how others around them made sense of rising poverty and homelessness.

Community Level

By negotiating Acreville membership, school and community leaders crafted their own definitions of community. Weick (1995) provided some important insights into understanding this negotiation process. First, Weick (1995) emphasized that individuals or groups do not need accurate accounts, but rather good stories (and therefore myths, metaphors, and fables can be important in sensemaking). This was clearly evident with the myth of the billboards as a perceived main cause of Acrevilles poverty and homelessness and as a way to help justify who truly counts as an Acrevillian. This myth extended beyond a single organizationit was prolific throughout Acreville. Weick argued that accuracy can sometimes limit action, so plausibility is more important. However, in this case, plausibility was often associated with action that was not in the best interest of families experiencing poverty and homelessness, particularly because it shaped perceptions of families living in subsidized housing.

The recycling permits also reflected this tension around Acreville membership. Weick (1995) discussed self-fulfilling prophecies, which occur when people see what their expectations suggest they would see. Also applicable is the sensemaking property of enactmentwhere actors create their own environments (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004; Weick, 1995). The government deemed public housing residents to be unwelcome and denied them recycling permitswhich led to televisions being abandoned on the front lawn. This chain reaction confirmed what individuals expected to see and justified perceptions about subsidized housing tenants as undesirable neighbors. The self-fulfilling prophecy, however, had stigmatizing consequences for families and students.

Weick and colleagues (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005) argued that in sensemaking, questions of identity, such as Who am I/we? become crucial. In the process of sensemaking, my findings suggest that participants constructed not only their own identity and the identity of others, but also the identity of their district and community. For instance, in rewriting the district mission statement, wide-ranging cross-sector stakeholders debated the districts identitywith discussions centering on responses to racial, socioeconomic, and community change. Given that schools reflect the socio-cultural and sociopolitical dynamics of larger society (Evans, 2007b, p. 184), it seems natural that the tension around organizational identity was intertwined with a broader conflict around community identity (see Table 6). Extending this tension, many school and community leaders, such as Father Jim, reconstructed Acrevilles identitylaying out who we are as a community In essence, leaders often projected a worldview onto Acreville as a wholeserving to simplify, reify, and anthropomorphize a fluid and multifaceted community.

Extending the Sensemaking Properties

There can be a conceptual challenge, however, in employing a multilevel (individual, organizational, and community) approach to sensemaking. Namely, the development of an individuals critical awareness around sociopolitical issues may not typically be associated with rationality and order. Thus, there can be an apparent disconnect when attempting to link an individuals critical awareness with the rationality of organizational systems. In line with Evans (2007b), leaders often made sense of events in ways that were congruent with organizational values and contexts where they worked. Yet, leaders sometimes grappled with misalignments between their individual and organizational ideologies (see Evans, 2007b; also, Anderson, 1990). For instance, on the medal lunch, Anne struggled to bridge the gap between her personal ideologies, her professional duties to all the children in ASD, and the cues coming from teachers in the district. For Anne, the status quo was rational, so her sensemaking emphasized the need to block change. On the other hand, for school leaders such as Faye, who discussed the gasoline vouchers for homeless families, bridging her critical awareness with the feeling of order, clarity, and rationality (Weick, 1995, p. 29) in sensemaking required embracing change and disrupting the status quo. Thus, leaders sometimes bridged this conceptual disconnect by redefining what is rational and integrating these redefinitions into their narratives about Acreville. Even though Faye pushed back against the district, the organizational values of the ASD were not largely at odds with her own critical awareness; this alignment may have facilitated advocacy (see Anderson, 1990; Evans, 2007b).

In instances of multilevel sensemaking, there may be value in extending Weicks (1995) sensemaking properties. First, it is useful to unpack the identity property to capture the individual-, organizational-, and community-level questions that arise. Two additional properties may also help to address the conceptual divide in multilevel sensemaking. Namely, it may be important to consider the alignment between the individual, organizational, and community levels in evaluating how actors pick and choose their extracted cues. Finally, multilevel sensemaking requires attention to bridgingthe process of connecting individual understandings of complex, nuanced constructs and issues with broader rationality in systems.


By explicitly foregrounding the suburban context, I extend the educational scholarship on student and family homelessnesswhich tends to draw data from higher density, urban communities (e.g., Grothaus et al., 2011; Hallett, 2012; Miller, 2011c; Pavlakis, 2014, 2015). I also build on the work of Miller and Bourgeois (2013), which highlighted the geographic dispersion of homelessness and suggested that suburban school districts may struggle to respond.

Turning explicitly to the suburban poverty literature, A. Murphy (2010) suggested that to develop appropriate policy tools, policy makers need an understanding of the complexities of suburban poverty and how locals perceive it. In this way, my findings contribute to the small but growing body of literature on suburban poverty and can aid in the development of policy approaches. Not only do I help to usher the suburban poverty literature into the education sector, but I also extend urban education to broader geographic placesbeyond the inner-ring suburbs. I highlight the blurred boundaries of urban education, the spillovers and intersections with suburban areas. I caution readers to avoid interpreting my findings to suggest that inner-city poverty no longer matters. Urban poverty rates remain higher than suburban rates (Baker, 2015). Yet, Acreville leaders are confronting rising poverty and homelessnesswith little history and experience in addressing these challenges. Likewise, socioeconomic and racial changes have led to concerns about crime, safety, and gangs. Although there is little evidence of an increased crime rate in Acreville, these perceptions mold educational opportunities for families and students and thus require attention. This disconnect between perceptions and reality is unlikely to be unique to Acreville; interestingly, the work of Sampson (2012) highlighted that, despite popular belief, residing in neighborhoods with high percentages of immigrants was actually associated with lower, rather than higher, levels of violence.

Some of Acrevilles promising practiceswhich were unique for a relatively affluent suburbwere borrowed from urban areas such as New York City, Baltimore, and Oakland but adapted to more appropriately fit the suburban context. For instance, whereas some school sites in cities have school-based health centers with on-site dental services (Albert, McManus, & Mitchell, 2005), Acrevilles lower concentration of poverty and homelessness made such approaches impracticalrather, leaders work with nearby providers to increase access and ensure that students can make it to appointments by overcoming transportation and scheduling barriers. Some antipoverty organizations, which tend to situate themselves in large urban areas, also take a neighborhood approach to provisionpositioning individuals and offices in residential areas where students and families experiencing poverty and homelessness live. Although the concentration of poverty in certain urban neighborhoods may make this approach particularly effective, Acreville and other suburbs like it have pockets of poverty (A. Murphy, 2010, p. 1172), which may hinder the efficacy of such a model. In fact, Acreville was not able to work with a national nonprofit that provides services to low-income youth because the nonprofits urban-centric model was not appropriate to the geographic dispersion of Acrevilles poverty. Acrevilles one-stop shop, on the other hand, was located in the center of town, which was traversed by a larger number of families in need than any one neighborhood would bealthough transportation obstacles persisted. Acrevilles suburban adaptions could serve as a model to similarly positioned communities that are also facing poverty challenges that we previously considered to be city problems. In this sense, we are left with a hopeful picture of a response to a recent educational phenomenonthe geographic spread of poverty and homelessness.


The suburban poverty literature suggests that there are multiple types of suburban communities (Cooke, 2010; Holiday & Dwyer, 2009; Kneebone & Berube, 2013; Mikelbank, 2004; A. Murphy, 2010; M. Orfield, 2002)this study examined a single suburb based on a purposive sample. However, generalizability was not my goal; instead, I aimed to provide rich description so that the reader can decide the extent to which my findings may be applicable to other locations (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Scholars are just beginning to examine how suburban communities are responding to community change (i.e., Frankenberg & Orfield, 2012; Holme, Diem, & Welton, 2014; Welton et al., 2013). More education research is needed on diverse types of suburban communities and on the unique contours of homelessness. Although the purpose of this study was to capture sensemaking among leaders, future work should consider sensemaking among families experiencing poverty and homelessness.

School leaders should also leverage the MVA to create spaces for local and regional dialogue. According to Weick (1995), more information alone will not advance sensemaking because the process is about confusion rather than ignorance. Instead, stakeholders need to discuss and debate, using data to create fresh frameworks. Because the MVA includes a mandate for districts to collaborate with diverse stakeholders, school leaders should use the act to create meeting spaces for sensegiving in the community and region. Scholars have argued for regional collaboration in order to reduce barriers for families (Kneebone & Berube, 2013), but regional collaboration could also assist in spurring reevaluations of leaders sensemakingparticularly as agencies share data, programs, and practices across geographic spaces. For example, South King County and South Seattle built cross-sector, cross-geographic coalitions to improve educational outcomes for students experiencing poverty (The Road Map Project, 2014). My findings also have implications for leadership preparation. G. Orfield (2012) suggested that almost all educational administrators are former teachers; they are not typically trained in demography, housing, race relations, or the dynamics of neighborhood change (p. 219). Further, Evans (2007b) noted that most school leaders are not aware of the impact of their own identities on their ideologies and the subsequent consequences for students. However, leaders with coherent ideologies on sociopolitical issues may be better situated to make sense of multiple messages and advocate for children. Likewise, they are often in a position to shape and serve as the managers of organizational meaning (Anderson, 1990, p. 43). Yet, many high-quality leadership programs aim to position administrators with the capacity and disposition to be responsive to local contexts. In fact, ASD commonly recruited fromand sent leaders toa nearby social justice-oriented preparation program, which may suggest that these programs can play key roles in shaping sensegivers. When these programs provide opportunities for emerging leaders to understand their own identities and impact, they may better prepare them to align and bridge the multiple messages in organizational and community contexts.

Students who plan to or currently work in suburban spaces should also gain experience in urban spaces to help mold sensemaking frameworks and prepare leaders for the realities of working in blurred spaces. This could occur through a rotating fieldwork or even group work with students who do have experience in urban areas. Urban leadership education programs should consider hosting two-way learning sessions for suburban leaders.

Last, there is a need to increase the percentage of school employees of color. Despite ASDs efforts (e.g., interview questions address positionality, and professional development examines cultural competency and race), the district lacked employees of colora problem also noted by Holme and colleagues (2014) in a Texas suburb. Multiple Acreville leaders recognized this as concerning, and a couple of school leaders reported that families of color identified the homogenous racial composition of faculty as a barrier to educational opportunities. The district should ensure that their hiring packages (both salary and in-kind benefits) are competitive. To help address pipeline issues, internal leadership development programs should be created to support promising teachers, other school employees, and parents. Yet, the sheer lack of leaders of color among community providers, government, and business representatives was also concerning given the importance of cross-sector action (Miller, 2013). Community providers should ensure that hiring and retention practices prioritize diversity.

Finally, providers should capitalize on untapped opportunities to work closely with families in order to improve services, expand educational opportunities, and engender leadership among residents already living and working in Acreville. For example, families who used the food pantry could be provided with work and leadership opportunities through the one-stop shop. Taken together, these recommendations may better position suburban communitieslike Acrevillewith the necessary tools and supports to address rising poverty and homelessness, better meet the diverse needs of its residents, and counter the negative and cumulate effects of inequality of opportunity. With the onset of rising family poverty and homelessness in the suburbs, it is more important than ever that communities work toward the shared goal of continuously improving the educational opportunities of all students.


While any errors are my own, I would like to thank Drs. Peter Miller, Carolyn Kelley, Richard Halverson, John Diamond, Bianca Baldridge, Madeline Hafner, and the anonymous reviewers for their feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript.


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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: 10/16/2021 9:04:42 AM

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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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