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Children who live in http://theeducatorsroom.com/2013/05/working-in-a-high-poverty-environment/poverty need additional support when they attend school. According to a recent article in the Washington Post a majority of public school students are living in poverty. This is based on statistics from the 2013-2014 school year which showed that the number of students receiving free or reduced lunch is now over 51%. It is imperative that we have a plan for these students so that they can graduate from high school and enter the work force. Policy makers seem to be torn on what we need to do in order to make this happen. Teachers, however, can make some useful suggestions.
For the first 12 years of my life, I grew up in poverty. My father died before I was three. There was no welfare or childcare. My mother and I lived on survivor’s benefits from Social Security. We lived with friends and relatives until I was old enough to enter school. At that time, we moved into a public housing project that had an elementary school on its premises. It was a unique situation because all of the teachers knew that they were teaching children living in poverty.
One of the things that I remember most from my time in elementary school was that we were all treated with respect. It didn’t matter to the teachers that we were poor. They had high expectations for us all. The school had an auditorium/gym where a different class each year presented a musical performance. In third grade, we presented the Mikado with costumes, singing, and musical instruments. Everyone in the class, had a part. We didn’t have an art teacher so our teachers incorporated art activities into class projects. We were able to do many of these things because our teachers chose to introduce us to things that we might not see at home. Of course, it helped that we only had a standardized test once a year and not before 3rd grade. That extra time gave us the opportunity to enjoy a variety of activities.
My own positive experience going to a school where teachers supported the students caused me to select a school not far from where I grew up. I was aware that a large portion of the student body was living in poverty. I thought that my own school experience would help me understand what my students were dealing with. When I began at this middle school we had a great support system. In addition, to classroom teachers for major subjects we had elective teachers for subjects like art and music, as well as supplemental teachers for reading and math. We also had four counselors who were assigned to no more than 400 students each. Planning time was available for subject teachers and elective teachers to collaborate on projects and share information about individual students. There were few serious behavior problems. We also gave standardized tests once a year. The data from these tests was used to help our students do better not to punish teachers. We were recognized as a model for other middle schools. As teachers know so many good programs disappear when funding begins to decline.
By the time I retired we had only two counselors who were each assigned about 800 students. We were a full Title I school so everyone got free breakfast and lunch. We also had students living in homeless shelters. Elective classes had been reduced by two-thirds and not everyone cycled through every elective. Students in 8th grade who would have had a chance to go to a magnet school if they had an art portfolio did not have art in 7th or 8th grade. The pressure was on to improve standardized test scores so that we would not be taken over by a private company. This pressure caused some teachers to blame the students, especially those who didn’t understand what the children were dealing with. How do you improve test scores for students living in homeless shelters who can only count on getting food when they come to school?
Thinking about both my personal experience growing up in poverty and my teaching experience in a high poverty school I have a few suggestions:
1. School staff needs to be trained on how poverty affects student learning.
2. We need nurses, counselors, and social workers in all schools.
3. Students living in poverty reach school age with a number of deficits. We must stop wasting precious time on standardized testing and use that time for academics.
4. Smaller class size would allow teachers to spend more time with individual students.
5. We must find a way to retain teachers who want to work in high poverty schools. Just assigning teachers with experience to these schools is not a silver bullet.
6. Teachers need to show respect for all of their students. Poor children don’t need shaming by those who have never lived in poverty.
Let me conclude by saying that students who live in poverty can and do learn, we just need as a society to have the will to make it happen.
Do you have any suggestions for how we can support students who live in poverty?