Education Opinion

Learning the Way Out of Poverty

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 20, 2015 5 min read
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Whether a school has a majority of its students living in poverty, or only a small percentage of students living in poverty, keeping poverty on our minds is important. Reading about, talking about, and doing something about those students living in poverty may cause us to do something different from what is happening for those students now. Understanding why a parent cannot or does not come to a meeting or function at school rather than allowing a belief or bias to seep into the minds and conversations of those who work with these students is essential.

Parents may not be in attendance because the meeting, with 5 professionals, is overwhelming and we might be intimidating, speaking a language that is ours and not theirs. Parents may not be in attendance because survival demands them to be at a meeting called to determine if they will lose food stamps, or Medicaid, or unemployment, or because they had no childcare or eldercare for those who may be living with them. Understanding what it is like to be poor in this country, in each community will inform the interventions needed to support children who are living in poverty to become successful learners.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families.” The article was revealing, but not surprising. The comments that followed, however, open the door to perspectives that need attention.

We all hold certain bias, whether it is about high stakes things like race, poverty, and religion, or lower stake things like foods, bias is within us. Uncovered in the comment section of this article were thoughts and beliefs that may be the very ones present within our schools and communities. These biases may be driving the way poverty is or isn’t addressed and may be very dangerous to ignore. Here is one that sums up many of the comments posted after the article appeared:

‘When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe,’ said Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary School in Albuquerque. Fourteen of her 18 kindergartners are eligible for free lunches.

Stop right there. These are questions that a teacher should not be asking. These are needs that should be met by the parents. Yes, mom and dad. Not mama and baby daddy, or mama and Uncle Sam. It’s the breakdown of the family which is the ultimate cause of this. The citizens of the United States have no business raising children who are not their own. If I, or you, wish to donate to private charities to provide for the poor, then we have the right to, but giving something to someone who has not earned it is just continuing the problem. This cycle will NEVER be broken as long as these people know that the Stupid American Taxpayer will pay for them and their children. And don’t even talk to me about illegals and their kids.

For us these are biases, but not everyone will agree. For others this represents legitimate positions and perspectives. Either way, these feelings are ours to reconcile. Leaders do that. We cannot become one of those who blame the parents and we must not allow schools to pass off the responsibility to educate every child who comes to us. If we are to teach and lead in a system where we can help students who live in poverty to “learn their way out of poverty” then we must understand it well and communicate its reality as we investigate the ways to eliminate its constraints on learning. In order for learning to take place, it is essential for all students to be healthy, rested, fed, and safe.

Students living in poverty rarely have the opportunity to arrive at school as ready to learn as their middle class peers. If the family is unable to provide what is necessary for the students to be learning ready, it is the expectation that the schools pick up the slack. No legislation or mandate has said only students who come to school learning ready must meet the standards and goals. All students are expected to make it in this country and doing so means a lot of filling in the gaps. That is what schools have set their sights on. Students who enter kindergarten with learning behavior gaps are offered support and intervention, whether it is about their pre-reading skills, or their ability to sit and watch and listen as a book is read. But, schools, need partners to resolve all the needs children bring.

Beth Lindsay Templeton (2011) and William H. Parrett and Kathleen M. Budge (2012) are three of those contributing to awareness about the effects of poverty on learning. Their work informs the field about understanding the nature and impact of poverty, changing perceptions about student success, and offering advice on changing high-poverty schools into high-performing schools. Awareness about poverty’s impact on learning informs the need for consideration as new designs of schools are being considered.

When in meetings about students who seem unable to meet the mark, often issues of attendance, lack of engagement, poor reading or math scores are raised. And often interventions ...like calling home when the student is absent or reading and math interventions ...are put in place. “Try harder” whether said or thought will not make the difference. As with most things, understanding the situation of the “other” is a key to unlock answers. What must it be like for a child who is cold, hungry, afraid and who cannot compete with his or her peers at their first steps into our schools? School, which we hope is the path out of poverty, can become another place to be afraid, to experience failure, to be marginalized or to act out. What must it be like for those who may not have been read to, who may have to wait while parents try to find work or deal with agencies essential to their survival, while their peers are off to library time or swimming lessons with their parents? Is it truly the breakdown of the family or the society’s lack of responsiveness to the needs of today’s poor? Truly, do we believe that people are poor because they are “lazy?” Our work is with children and they do not choose their circumstances. As we meet them at the door, ignoring their physical, emotional, and mental state is not an option.

Helpful Resources:

Parrett, W. H. & Budge, K.M. (2012). Turning High-Poverty Schools into High-Performing Schools. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Templeton, B.L. (2011). Understanding Poverty in the Classroom: Changing Perceptions for Student Success. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Education

NY Times Article, Percentage of Poor Students in Public Schools Rises, by Mokoto Rich

NY TImes Op-Ed, War Over Poverty by Paul Krugman

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.