Monday, August 15, 2011

Looking at poverty in education: an excuse or a way to find solutions?


My class size was pretty small last week for Jump Start. We’ve been calling home to talk to parents, reminding them to get their children to the bus stops, and listening to everything that is going on in their lives that is keeping them from getting their children to school.  We’ve had some pretty heartbreaking conversations. It is never that our parents do not want to bring their children to school, but incidents happen in their lives that are currently keeping them from getting them to our summer program. Things like sudden homelessness, the lack of a car to get to the bus stop, the threat of a lost job if they take off to meet the bus at noon, or simply no way to get their child to school after an important doctor’s appointment. Most of what is keeping the children from school is due to their parents’ financial limitations. And I can’t start doing my job until the children are inside the door.
Right now the poverty debate is being portrayed in the media as though it is a black or white issue. One side believes that teachers end up using poverty as an excuse to not teach, and that these teachers are actively holding children back by having low expectations. The other side seems to claim that policy makers who do not consider poverty are hurting our children by holding them to unrealistic standards and are overlooking the larger social problems in our society. Both sides are valid, yet at this point the debate isn’t achieving anything except making everyone angry at each other. Caught in the middle are the families- parents with a limitation of resources and children who deserve to learn to read, write, and do math as well as their middle to upper-class counterparts.
I’ve never wrapped my head around how we are supposed to ignore poverty and the home situations of our students. I understand that a child’s background should not make us hold them to lower expectations, but ignoring what they are struggling with seems to do a disservice to them and leaves us frustrated. When teachers constantly meet road blocks due to poverty they get frustrated. Especially when those roadblocks seem to stand between the job we know we can do and the job we are able to do. Telling us to not use poverty as an excuse seems to send the message that poverty should be ignored and that we need to fight head-on with the track we were on, without acknowledging the roadblocks along the way. Have you ever driven your car into a road block? If it is a cement road block, one that has been there for years, your car would be destroyed and the road block wouldn’t really be changed. Maybe a crack here and there, but you still wouldn’t get through.
The only way I can see that we need to deal with the poverty debate is to acknowledge what is happening in the lives of our students and identify realistic solutions.  Our kindergarten Jump Start program is a great example of this. For years we’ve lamented about the number of children we get who have never had any sort of preschool or daycare experience before they enter kindergarten. Those poor children spend the first few weeks of school shell-shocked and behind their peers. They never seem to catch up to their peers because while they are trying to figure out who the crazy adult is in the front of the room, their friends are diving into their academics.  So when the money came in for us to have summer school our brilliant assistant principal, who had listened to the teachers, decided to not just use the money for the students we already knew were at risk, but to also use the money for the students we hadn’t met yet but who fit into a pattern. Any child who registered for kindergarten with no preschool experience was invited to Jump Start. In these two weeks they are working hard at writing their names, learning their alphabet, and getting accustomed to the social ways of school.  If we hadn’t acknowledged the problem of a lack of preschool experience we never would have found a solution.
Another example is our school’s parent center. Parent involvement can be a huge problem at my school, as I am sure it can be at my Title 1 schools around the country. We didn’t just complain about lack of parent involvement, but we didn’t ignore the problem either and try to education the children alone. Instead our school has a parent center where parents can go to get documents translated, take English classes, use the computers, learn how to navigate the American school system, meet other parents, and attend weekly sessions on how to help their child succeed in school. Our parent center is always adding new programs or trying new ideas to incorporate parents. They find these ideas by identifying the problems, look at the causes, and then finding workable solutions. Without acknowledging poverty none of this would have happened. Of course, using poverty as an excuse wouldn’t have gotten us far either.
As teachers we don’t have time to complain about the need for an increase of government agencies. Sure it would be nice if social services wasn’t so booked up, or if our families got their welfare checks on time, but we don’t have control of any of that. We have to look at what we do have control of and make changes there, even if it is just within our own classroom walls.
I tense up anytime I hear or read something complaining that teachers who use poverty as an excuse. I worry that taking poverty out of the equation in school reform means that we’ll never find those solutions that reach out to parents as well as our students. Sometimes we have to acknowledge a child’s background in order to dig into the big picture and find a solution.  We know that trauma impacts working memory. If a child has just been through trauma and isn’t being successful we can’t say “well, trauma is no excuse.” We have to look at the big picture and change our approach. We don’t change our long-term expectations, but maybe we alter instruction, get in touch with a guidance counselor, make time to listen to the student, or find a way to help the child focus on school.
I just wish both sides would stop yelling at each other and start thinking about the kids. Let’s be honest about problems in education and then work to find solutions. Being honest does not mean we lower expectations, it just means we prepare to work harder to get to that final goal. 

1 comment:

magpie said...

It's a reflection of society where the impoverished regard teachers as well off and the well off regard teachers as second class citizens.
No wonder the debate is always confusing.
I love the jump start program. We use a similar program for local year 2(7yr old)'Steiner schooled' children. However there's nothing for the non-kindy children, probably because of funding as you suggest.
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