Understanding the Suburban Student View

November 2018

Understanding the student view - suburban students

Margaret King,

Retired teacher, Patchogue-Medford School District

For many Americans, our vision of the suburbs hasn’t changed since moving from the city to more idyllic surroundings came to be. The suburbs promised an appealing kind of sameness where families expected and found something better, most especially education.


In communities across the country that’s still true, but it’s anything but guaranteed. On paper, it all looks pretty good. By and large, suburban districts are better funded and can afford quality teachers and a curriculum where ELA and STEM along with art and music are standard fare. And there’s no shortage of language programs and AP classes. In fact, more suburban students go to college than their urban and rural peers.

In spite of a seemingly rich educational experience in most suburbs, evolving demographics and economics have given way to new and, perhaps, surprising challenges from parental communications and engagement to transportation to supporting English Language Learners.

Margaret King retired from teaching second grade in Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island two years ago. She believes that we assume a degree of sameness in our suburbs that simply isn’t accurate. “We think that everybody went to the same kind of schools,” she said. “And everybody’s got two parents and two kids. That’s not the case.”

“We think that everybody went to the same kind of schools, and everybody’s got two parents and two kids. That’s not the case.”

King well knows how differences of all sorts can impact student learning. For example, in a community where many residents live very comfortably, there’s also poverty. Being poor can affect many aspects of a student’s education, even in the suburbs. For example, for families who share one car or don’t have one at all, participation in after-school activities may be impossibly hard. Public transportation isn’t typically a given in most suburbs. Then there’s the matter of work. For parents who, as King describes it, “are working 18-hour days,” attending conferences or other school functions is difficult at best.

However, King shares that parental engagement isn’t just a problem of the poor. She suggests that students whose parents have large professional commitments also may struggle to give their children the attention they need to be successful in school. But, clearly, these students would seem to have an advantage over those who are new to the country and learning English at school while living with parents who still speak their native language…right?

Sometimes, yes, but not always. King maintains there are varying degrees of success among learners of all types. She says circumstances like being from a poor household or one with high-income earners or not knowing the language aren’t always indicators of outcomes. She offers ESL students as an example. “Some of my best kids were ESL students because their parents conveyed the importance of learning,” she said.

Ultimately, King concludes considering the whole child — a strategy and commitment in the Patchogue-Medford District that starts with Superintendent Michael Hynes — is critical. His leadership has enabled individualized education and important innovations like more recess time, yoga and meditation and more structured and unstructured play for elementary students. King is hopeful about the future of suburban education because some of these approaches are working and efforts to leverage the whole village — school leaders, teachers and parents and community residents — to support student learning are working too.

This article is part of a bigger feature story on education opportunity in suburban America. Read the feature article here.


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