War on Poverty: Fifty years later schools are the battleground

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Lisa Grout is a social studies teacher at North Country Union High School in Newport.  She has a perspective on both poverty and how poverty affects student outcomes.  Photo by Richard Creaser
Lisa Grout is a social studies teacher at North Country Union High School in Newport. She has a perspective on both poverty and how poverty affects student outcomes. Photo by Richard Creaser

copyright the Chronicle January 22, 2014

Editor’s note:  The following story is the first in a two-part series on the link between poverty and success in school.

by Richard Creaser

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared in his State of the Union Address an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”

Fifty years later, the war rages on with the nation’s public schools as the battleground in this epic struggle.

“As a history teacher, I just can’t help but see that this isn’t anything new,” said Lisa Grout, a social studies teacher at North Country Union High School.  “At times, it has been described as a racial divide, but really it’s something else — it isn’t a war on poverty, it’s a war on the poor.  We need to rid ourselves of this myth that anyone can do whatever they want to do if they really want it.  Our system just isn’t balanced evenly that way.”

In fact, the system appears to be heavily weighted against students from poor families.

A direct link between low household income and student achievement is known in the educational system as the achievement gap.  The evidence is most readily appreciated by examining student performance on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) scores as tabulated by the Vermont Agency of Education.  Agency data for the reporting period of 2011-2012 for North Country is especially telling, although it’s important to consider that NECAP tests are only administered to juniors at the high school level.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading is 52 percent for students who receive free or reduced lunch, while the proficiency rate is 80 percent for other students.  In writing, low-income students achieved a 19 percent achievement rate, while their peers achieved a 56 percent proficiency rate.

The discrepancy also applies at the elementary school level.  An examination of 2011-2012 NECAP results from Barton Academy and Graded School, the school with the highest free and reduced lunch rate in Orleans County, also shows evidence of the achievement gap.  Eighty-six of the 113 students participating in the testing qualified for free and reduced price lunches. NECAP exams at the elementary school level take place in grades three through eight.  In the reading portion of the exam, free and reduced lunch students achieved a 69 percent proficiency rate while their peers scored a 93 percent proficiency rate.  In writing, free and reduced lunch students achieved a 64 percent proficiency rate while higher income students had an 81 percent proficiency rate.

A variety of factors play into the equation between personal wealth and academic success.  They range from the 30-million word gap (well off children hear more words in an hour than poor kids) to nutrition and access to opportunity.

The simple fact is that more impediments face students in low-income households than those from middle- and upper-income households.

“I don’t believe it’s an issue that students alone face,” said Linda Michniewicz, director for the Newport based Head Start program.  “It begins with their families and the challenges they face.  When all of your energy and all of your focus is on survival, everything else, education included, can take a back seat to the task of staying alive.”

Behind those challenges lie changes that have forced more people into the workforce, depleting the support system that traditionally was in the home.  Children from single parent homes, or households where both parents must work, are often robbed of the support and encouragement necessary to succeed in school.

“I don’t believe that any parent doesn’t want their children to be happy and successful,” Ms. Michniewicz said.  “They are out there, trying to provide as best they can for their kids.  When you spend your entire day struggling to meet the most basic needs of food and shelter that essential time spent with your children fostering curiosity and learning isn’t there.  It isn’t that they don’t love their children, it’s that they no longer have the time and opportunity to do more with them.”

Kristi Ellis, principal at the Jay-Westfield School cautions that a lack of money is only one measure of poverty and that alone is not an indicator that students will necessarily struggle.  Many local families choose to live a simple lifestyle whose focus is not based around money or material wealth.  The key difference is how active a role that family takes in the education of their child, she said.

“We have families who may not have a lot of money but are able to provide all of the necessities while still being able to devote time to their children,” Ms. Ellis said.  “That family connection is critical to the partnership between the home and the school.  In some ways, that partnership is perhaps more critical than the amount of income the family earns in determining student success.”

NECAP scores at the Jay-Westfield School indicate that Ms. Ellis is right — there isn’t always a direct correlation between income and success in school.  For instance, recent math scores in third- through eighth-graders show no difference between those students eligible for free or reduced lunch and those who aren’t.  Eighty-two percent of the higher income kids tested were proficient — and so were 82 percent of low-income kids.  Forty-one percent of the poorer kids were proficient with distinction, compared to 38 percent of their more well-to-do peers.

In reading, there’s a more noticeable difference.  Eighty-nine percent of the higher income children were proficient in reading, compared to 73 percent of the students eligible for free or reduced lunch.

The amount of time and the quality of interaction between parent and child creates a foundation that either supports or impedes academic success, said Neila Decelles, a psychologist who also serves as assistant director and clinical director for Turning Points, an alternative education school in Newport.  Ms. Decelles referenced the work of researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, which investigated the connection between the quantity and quality of verbal interaction between parents and their children during the child’s first four years of life.

Their study, “The Early Catastrophe,” discovered that children in low-income households were exposed to 616 words per hour on average.  Children from middle-income homes heard 1,251 words per hour on average while children in high-income homes heard an average of 2,153 words per hour.  The difference between low-income and high-income homes amounted to a 30-million word divide over those critical first four formative years.

“Why is this important?” Ms. Decelles said.  “Because we think in words.  The fewer words in your mental vocabulary the more difficult it becomes to express and understand concepts.  Those feelings of frustration and inadequacy can’t help but surface when you find yourself unable to express exactly what it is you are feeling or thinking.”

That’s not to say that low-income families communicate significantly less than higher-income families, Matthew Baughman, principal at Coventry Village School said.  In low-income households non-verbal communication often fills the gap.  While it’s a means to communicate a variety of emotions, it’s not necessarily the best means to build up a child’s mental vocabulary.

“Memories hinge on words and the things associated with those words,” Mr. Baughman said.  “It’s very hard to hang on to a memory on non-verbal input.”

The word deficit often becomes embedded in the culture of the poor.  Families that have never pursued higher education, were never exposed to reading at an early age, and never had access to opportunities to broaden their horizons lose sight of the value of those opportunities.

“Studies have shown us that when you have folks who might not be as educated, they don’t have the same kinds of aspirations for their children,” said Martha Allen, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association (NEA).  “It makes it even more imperative that we provide kids and their families with these kinds of opportunities.  But at the same time we have to be ready to support them in pursuing them.”

“Kids who come from homes where the parents had a negative experience in school are going to have a harder time than those who didn’t,” Lake Region Union High Principal Andre Messier said.  “The attitude toward education has a direct relationship on how well a student performs.  We need to change that attitude, and we need to do it as early as possible if we want to give our kids the best possible chance to succeed.”

Mr. Messier can relate, at least to some degree, he said, to the challenges faced by many of his students.  He grew up on a farm in Orleans County, and his family never had a lot of disposable income.  While the family was able to meet his basic needs, they lacked the direct experience to help when it came time for him to look into college.

“I was the first person in my family to go to college, so there really wasn’t anyone in my family who could help me navigate the system,” Mr. Messier said.  “But what they did do was respect education as a means to better myself.  Even if they couldn’t help me with loans or applications, they could support me in my choices and encourage me along that path.”

For some families, respecting the educational system is a challenge.  Whether it was from a frustrating personal experience or a sense of abandonment by the system they believed should help them up, trusting education as a path out of poverty was difficult.

“Education sometimes gets in the way of short-term survival needs,” Ms. Grout said.  “The difficulty of living day-to-day makes it hard to appreciate that education is long-term, but its benefits will pay off in the end.  Poverty is now and it’s this compelling thing that says you need to have more.”

Lurking alongside that compulsion comes the stigma of poverty.  In a society that glorifies the acquisition of wealth, there is a tendency to look down on people of limited means, Ms. Decelles said.

“I think there’s more of a burden on families to demonstrate they aren’t in need among low-income families,” she said.  “That exists because there’s this prevalent line of thinking that says if you’re poor, you must have done something wrong or failed in some way.”

On the flip side, there’s an attitude among the poor that the wealthy have experienced some measure of good luck, or they’ve made their fortunes illegally.  Both attitudes need to be dispensed with if society is to make a meaningful contribution to addressing economic inequality, Ms. Decelles said.

How big a role the stigma of poverty plays in the population of those who get free and reduced school lunch is a mystery, particularly at the high school level.  In Vermont, a household of four is eligible for free lunch if its annual household income is less than $30,615, while reduced priced lunches are eligible to four-person households earning less than $43,568 a year.

The stigma issue is most apparent in reviewing the percentage of students enrolled in free and reduced lunches at the high school level compared to the percentages in their sending districts.  High school free and reduced lunch rates are 6 to 10 percent below those of their districts as a whole.

District data for the North Country Supervisory Union indicates a 59 percent free and reduced lunch rate, while North Country Union High School has a 53 percent reported rate.  The Orleans Central Supervisory Union has a 64 percent district rate, while Lake Region reports only 54 percent enrollment in the lunch program.

“We do what we can to encourage qualifying students and their families to fill out the forms,” North Country Principal Bill Rivard said.  “I honestly couldn’t tell you why our numbers are so much lower.  I don’t believe that the need is any less just because the kids are older.”

Mr. Messier has noticed a similar trend at Lake Region and is equally perplexed by the enrollment in the hot lunch program.

“Certainly by the time kids get in high school they become more aware of what free and reduced lunch means,” Mr. Messier.  “At the same time, it is possible that because these kids are able to work, maybe they are just buying their own lunches.  I see a lot of kids and ask why they aren’t eating and they say they’re not hungry.  But then I see that they are drinking three or four Mountain Dews or Monster energy drinks and know that’s where the money is going.”

Despite Governor Peter Shumlin’s initiative to have the state cover the cost of reduced price lunches, effectively making all lunches free to qualifying students, Mr. Messier said he has not noticed any particular upward trend in participation.  Part of the reason may have to do with the size of, and kinds of, meals schools are serving.

Federal mandates have radically altered what kinds of foods students have to be offered.  An emphasis on nutritious food and smaller portion sizes has likely steered more kids away from the program, Mr. Messier said.

“When I see what the portion sizes are I can’t help but think there’s no way a teenager is going to be full after eating that,” Mr. Messier said.  “I understand that it’s part of a societal effort to combat obesity, but I don’t believe that hot lunch programs are what contributed to that in the first place.  I think what it has done is discourage kids from wanting to eat even though they’re hungry.”

The role of meals at school cannot be understated.  The following is from Dr. Reynaldo Martorell’s report to the World Bank called “Early Child Development.”

“Undernutrition and the socioeconomic context in which it occurs appear to be related. Undernutrition has a greater effect on development in children living in poverty, whether in industrialized or in developing countries, than on children who are not poor. Some evidence suggests that nutrition interventions benefit cognition and behavior to a greater extent among the poorer segment of society.”

In other words, a hungry child is not as open to learning as one who is fed.  And the quality of food, not merely the quantity, plays an important role.

“Research has told us that brain development is affected by poor nutrition,” Ms. Allen said.  “Another challenge we face, especially with younger children, relates to food insecurity.  When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from it becomes incredibly difficult to focus on anything else.”

Many of the issues surrounding the link between poverty and educational outcomes hinge on a single word — stability.  The stability of food sources, the stability of family relations, the stability of the home — they’re all important factors.

“With so much instability in children’s lives, it has become more important than ever for our schools to become that point of stability,” Mr. Baughman said.  “There are students in this district who don’t have a bed of their own to sleep on.  They are sleeping on the couch or the floor of a relative’s home, the home of a parent’s friend.”

For some families, even solid walls would be an improvement.  Head Start workers visit with the families of children in the program.  They deliver services and try to foster a culture of trust that engages the family in the child’s education, Ms. Michniewicz said.  One such family lived in a tent.

“That’s the ultimate definition of temporary housing,” she said.  “That kind of home environment makes it very difficult for both the child and the family and it’s one that no one chooses for themselves.  The trouble isn’t with educating children in poverty, it’s that the priorities of this country don’t seem to be about supporting the family and facilitating education.”

“The short-term solutions seem like the answer, but they’re often the worst things you can do,” Ms. Grout said.  “Creating more minimum wage jobs is not the answer.  Building more jails, or putting in more landfills in poorer areas, is the kind of pattern that we have seen repeated throughout history.  If these are the jobs that you’re bringing in, what does that do to the culture of your community?”

Education is something that Ms. Decelles has given significant consideration to with regards to both the impending arrival of Walmart and the types of opportunities at the North Country Career Center.

The career center doesn’t train engineers and museum curators, but it does provide kids with skills in culinary arts and cosmetology, and it does train future electricians and auto mechanics, she noted.  Those skills provide kids with opportunities that apply not only locally but also wherever they may choose to go.

“If you want to stay in the Northeast Kingdom, you aren’t going to find a lot of opportunities in white collar professions,” Ms. Decelles said.  “But those of us who choose to live here will always have need of contractors, mechanics and places to eat or get our hair cut.  When did we ever decide that college was the litmus test of success?  Our valorizing of one profession as more important than another is a big part of the problem.”

Ms. Decelles said she originally opposed building a Walmart in the area.  That is, until she considered how useful its products are to many of the people in this region.

“As beautiful as this area is, it’s also very remote,” Ms. Decelles said.  “If people can’t get these goods or services here, they have to travel.  When transportation is such a big problem providing these services closer to home is a benefit.”

Transportation often poses another challenge to access to opportunity.  Poor families are less likely to have multiple cars or sometimes even reliable ones.  Without a means to get to and from activities poor children are often unintentionally excluded from after school programs, sports and other activities.  That can even be true for class field trips, Ms. Grout said.

“There’s this tendency to view field trips as superfluous and they are often the first things cut,” Ms. Grout said.  “And yet these are some of the most important things because they provide our kids with a new perspective of the world.  How can we aspire to something greater when we don’t even know what’s out there?”

Even as budgets tighten and societal pressures mount, schools are the battleground where the war on poverty is being fought.

“There’s a missionary attitude about teaching that expects teachers and schools to be second families for kids,” Mr. Baughman said.  “We don’t have that same expectation for any other profession.  We are very fortunate to have people who are so dedicated to children and teaching that we willingly take up this burden.”

Whether or not it’s fair to place such a burden on teachers is open to debate.  But the expectation exists and teachers are rising to meet the challenge.

“As educators we’ve been put in this position that is virtually impossible,” Ms. Michniewicz said.  “We can’t fix everything, but we can make a difference in the lives of children, whether we get to see it or not.  If we weren’t doing it, who would?”

contact Richard Creaser at [email protected]

In part II of this series the Chronicle examines what efforts public schools and educators are undertaking to bridge the achievement gap between low-income students and their peers.

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