Education Opinion

This is Where Some of our Children Live

By Anthony Cody — August 26, 2009 3 min read
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This morning’s San Francisco Chronicle tells the story.

Almost 200 Oakland residents, including 74 children, were forced from their homes Tuesday after city officials condemned a refuse-strewn apartment complex in the 2500 block of Foothill Boulevard as unsafe, city officials said.

The buildings had no running water, illegal wiring, boarded up windows and rodent infestations, officials said.

Many of these 74 children are presumably of school age, and will be starting one of Oakland’s elementary schools next Monday. They are now homeless, living with relatives or in a shelter. When they arrive at school, they will not have a sign explaining their conditions. They will just be among the many thousands of Oakland students struggling to live way below the poverty line. Many of Oakland’s schools are attended by students who live in poverty. Some schools are more than 90% economically disadvantaged.

We are often told not to make excuses for the poor performance of our schools, but I have seen firsthand the effect that poverty has on student performance. The children who lived in this apartment complex (until they were made completely homeless this week) are not that unusual. They have no place to study, so it is tough to do homework. There are drug users around the building, so it is noisy at night, making it hard to sleep. There are shootings in the neighborhood, so sometimes they have to dive to take cover from flying bullets. The nearest real grocery store is literally miles away, so food is often purchased at the neighborhood convenience store, and is highly processed and unhealthy. You can see them walking to school in the morning, eating their breakfast of corn chips and soda pop.

And just the stress of being poor takes its toll. If I am a bit short with my bills at the end of the month, I know how stressed that makes me. But those without regular work have a level of stress I have never even known. Unemployment in the Bay Area is over eleven percent, and is at least double that in many of these neighborhoods. That stress spills into family life, making people short-tempered and even violent. Children are often moved from one home to another, depending on who has space and food to take them in. Can you imagine how you would feel as a parent if you could not even afford to pay for a roof over your children’s heads?

On Monday, teachers will welcome their students to class. The ones without homes, the ones who are hungry, the ones in foster care -- they will do their best to hide these conditions. Like wounded birds, they do not want to appear weak or flawed. Once they are grown and have achieved success, they may take some pride in their humble origins, but there is no pride in being homeless when it is your reality today.

Good teachers will find out soon who the hungry ones are, and work with the school and the child’s parent or guardian to get them signed up for free lunches. They will make space for the children to stay after school and do homework. They will push all their students to do their best regardless of their circumstances. School can be a sanctuary for these students, a place where they are safe, and have a chance to be seen as human beings.

This fall there is less money than ever. Most of the Republicans in the state legislature have signed a pledge not to ever raise taxes, so when state revenues plummeted this year, school funding was cut by more than a thousand dollars per student. While the Bay Area remains an expensive place to live, Oakland’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the region. Class sizes will expand, and there will be no money to repair the copy machine or replace broken furniture or lost books. Teachers will dip into their savings accounts to make up the difference for their children, because that is what we do.

But there is a way in which education rhetoric these days seems to deny that poverty has an impact on the ability of students to learn. Sometimes it feels as if the schools and teachers are actually being blamed for the conditions our students are forced to live in. These conditions should not be used to justify a poor quality education. But the schools and teachers that serve these students have special challenges, and need our support.

Update:This article in the New York Times reportsthat more than a million students across the nation are now homeless, their lives in turmoil.

What is the impact of poverty on your students? How do you respond as an educator? How should we respond as a society?

Photo by Nesster used by permission through Creative Commons.

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