No School is an Island
Local Education Experts Say It’s Time to Bring Resources to Impoverished Students
It’s no secret that the Baltimore City Public School System has been struggling financially for the past several years. It was disclosed in late 2003 that the school system had a $50 million-plus budget deficit, and more recently the school system has announced that it likely will be closing some of its least-attended campuses in order to run more efficiently. But not enough attention, advocates say, has been paid to the poverty faced by students themselves, many of whom are held back less by financial woes of North Avenue than by the financial woes of their parents and guardians.
According to the American Community Survey, sponsored by the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Baltimore is among the poorest areas of its size in the country. Baltimore has a 24 percent poverty rate, ranking it as the sixth-poorest region in the nation among 236 areas surveyed by the Census.
That poverty is clearly reflected in the school system: About 73 percent of students in Baltimore’s schools receive free or reduced-price lunches, compared to just 31 percent in neighboring Baltimore County. According to statistics compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 35 percent of Baltimore’s children live below the poverty line, compared to just 11 percent statewide and 18 percent nationally. Nearly 22 percent of the city’s kids are without a parent in the work force—that’s more than three times the state average.
According to Eric Rice, chairman of the advisory board to the Community Learning for Life Program, a nonprofit working to reform education in the city, kids who live in poverty have a harder time getting ahead in school. Poverty, he says, “exacerbates” problems kids may deal with on a regular basis. For example, kids living in areas of concentrated poverty confront crime and drugs, or parents who use drugs, more often than kids living in more stable communities. Their families may not be able to afford such basic necessities as proper health care, healthy food, or school supplies. Despite a child’s ability to learn, Rice says, poverty affects success in school because it impedes kids’ “readiness” to achieve.
Though the link between poverty and educational success is rarely addressed by the media, educators say, test scores reflect the impact poverty has on student achievement. According to the Maryland State Department of Education, about 77 percent of third-graders across in Maryland passed the math portion of the latest Maryland State Assessment exam, as compared to 56 percent of students in the city; 58 percent of the city’s fifth-grade students passed reading, compared to 74 percent for the state. Of those city students that passed their exams, those that received free or reduced-priced meals fared less well than their counterparts: Across grade levels, those who didn’t receive any aid were twice as likely to score in the advanced category of the MSA test for reading, and were 2.5 times as likely to do the same in math.
Rice recalls working several years ago with three grade-school-age siblings who lived in East Baltimore who would come to school without breakfast and were uninsured.
“Their mom was unemployed and had no money to pay for medical care,” Rice recalls. “[She] had a boyfriend who just got out of jail for underage sexual assault—not against the siblings, against some other kids.”
The children struggled in their studies, and it was eventually discovered that some of them suffered from mental illnesses that had been poorly treated. Rice acknowledges that the kids’ family troubles contributed to their problems, but he says that, had they not been poor, they would have likely not experienced so many obstacles—both psychological and physical—to excelling in school.
“Had this been a middle-class family,” Rice says, “they wouldn’t have come to school hungry, they would have had the money for health coverage, the mental illness might have been caught earlier.”
The After-School to Community School Initiative, according to educators and children’s advocates, will help children whose lives are affected by poverty, crime, and drug addiction get access to services and support that can alleviate some of the obstacles poverty places before them. According to David C. Miller, co-founder and chief visionary officer of the Urban Leadership Institute, a Baltimore consulting firm that designs programs that assist urban youth and communities, programs that address the day-to-day needs of poor urban children are just as important to student achievement—if not more so—than massive school-reform efforts.
“I don’t think you can reform urban schools without reforming the communities,” Miller says. “When you begin to look at the level of poverty in Baltimore, coupled with the inability to find resources, it really adds to student underachievement.”
Miller points out that kids in poor communities face not only practical problems, like inadequate access to food or shelter, but they also suffer from the psychological impact of growing up in blighted neighborhoods.
“The kids get a distorted perspective of things,” says Miller, a former city public school teacher who received an Open Society Institute fellowship to begin the Urban Leadership Institute in 1999. “They see large numbers of unemployed men and women, predominately African-American, because there is no economic infrastructure in Baltimore. . . . Access to resources is critically important, and access is absent in poor communities.”
Christy Rather, director of education for the Village Learning Place in Charles Village, one of the community organizations involved with the After-School to Community School Initiative, says she regularly sees “so many kids who are starving and whose parents don’t have jobs. They can’t concentrate on their work, it’s just too much on their mind to just think about school.”
Rather says the community-schools concept brings some of the things those kids need—counseling, mentoring, and a safe place to remain after the regular school day is over—to children who might otherwise never come in contact with such support structures.
“I think the academic component is 45 minutes [out of three hours], but a lot of it involves enrichment programs and community activities,” she says. “It’s also good to have social-service programs right in the schools.”
According to Paul Street, author of the new book Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America, the media and policy makers have long failed to pay enough attention to the factors in children’s lives that are beyond schools’ control.
“Schools exist within a broader social context,” Street says. He accuses the media of failing to pay no more than “cursory attention to the severe educational consequences of concentrated poverty.” Instead, he says, the media and educational policy shapers focus on classroom practices and test scores when they should be focusing on the connection between underachievement in schools, poverty, and unemployment.
“When you make this kind of argument, that you have to account for these social inequalities, you immediately get charged with fatalism,” he says. “But [the people making that argument] are being fatalistic, thinking that you can’t improve the social problems facing students.”
Fatalism is what Gale Seiler, an assistant professor of education at UMBC, says is one of the chief obstacles facing many student-teachers she works with. Seiler, who conducts projects at Digital Harbor High School, a city school whose student body is selected by lottery, says that upon recognizing the massive social and economic burdens carried by poor students, many teachers are overwhelmed.
“Upon seeing how everything is connected,” she says, “they say, ‘If everything intersects, how can I help?’”
Seiler says she thinks teachers need to be involved with more than just by-the-book teaching, and she encourages her teachers to get involved in politics, communities, and organizations that impact kids’ lives and perceptions.
According to the Urban Leadership Institute’s Miller, that’s exactly the kind of involvement impoverished kids need in their lives.
“We need to teach kids to use poverty as a motivational factor to succeed and not as an excuse,” he says. “I see kids with $150 pair of sneakers on, but they don’t have the $15 SAT software for their computer, if they even have one. . . . There’s some money in the communities, but it’s been mismanaged. It needs to be directed toward education.”
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