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March/April 2014

Poverty at school: Tightrope of perils
By Sandra Watkins

Sandra Watkins is a professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University, Macomb, and a former school principal; and assistant and associate superintendent.

Poverty can create a veritable chasm filled with problems for students and school staff; one slip or one more setback would be all it takes to push them off the edge and away from any hope for academic success. I would like to show school leaders a high-poverty middle school with a group of champion tightrope walkers — an entire faculty and staff working to engage and empower at risk pre-adolescents and adolescents in their educational and social-emotional journey.

This is a real school – as real as it gets – and representative of problems that many educators face daily in Illinois districts where issues of significant poverty exist in their communities. The U.S. may be one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but localized poverty exacerbates difficulties in education. Consider the statistics. Data from the Illinois Interactive Report Card, based on free and reduced meal counts, show 49 percent of Illinois students are living in poverty. According to data from Kids Count, at, Illinois ranks 25th out of the 50 states with 21 percent of children living in poverty (compared to last-place Mississippi with 35 percent and first-place North Dakota with 13 percent).

In fact, the overall rate of children in poverty in the U.S. is currently 23 percent, according to the U.S. Census, which is actually higher than the 21.4 percent rate reported in 1964. In the 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed his “War on Poverty,” which led to a substantial number of domestic aid programs, not much has changed.

Of course, numbers can vary widely between individual districts and their county or city poverty rates, even though all are measured by income levels. For example, Cook County has a current student poverty rate of just 17.8 percent, yet Chicago Public Schools District 299 has a rate of 66 percent. Likewise, Macon County in Central Illinois has a student poverty rate of 21.8 percent, but the largest district, Decatur SD 61, has a rate of 59 percent.

But statistics cannot paint the entire picture. Please allow me to share the following portraits of student poverty as it is seen at school. These are true stories from an actual Friday while I was a school principal. Only the names have been altered to protect the actual identities of the students.

Faces of poverty
It was a hectic Friday, like most, at Norris Middle School. Norris is a central city school where the principal, who we will refer to as Elizabeth Townsend, shepherds 996 students, 46 teachers, two counselors, six cafeteria workers, nine custodians, and two secretaries. Townsend often refers to the building as a “sanctuary,” because 75 percent of the students come from poverty and the majority of those from dysfunctional homes. The school doors open at 6:30 a.m. and custodians make sure all students are out by 6 p.m. Most students receive breakfast and lunch, and those in the afterschool program also receive a healthy snack Monday through Wednesday and a treat on Thursday.

Students are supposed to leave the building by 5 p.m., but most like to “hang-out” and talk with the afterschool teachers because “they listen to us and hear our problems and concerns.” In fact, some students are now petitioning to have the afterschool program extended to Fridays. Others even come on Saturday morning for “pre-detention” because the principal does not want them missing valuable class time. One young man was sent to school on Saturday by his grandmother, who is also his guardian, because he was misbehaving at home. She said that he needed to go to pre-detention and “learn how to behave.” This was a shock to the Saturday teacher but she accepted him anyway. This session is supposed to be punishment. But some kids get in trouble at school just to be able to come on Saturdays!

Principal Townsend is there on Saturdays as well to catch up on paperwork. Some of that paperwork is generated because the school has two behaviorally disturbed classes and two other special education classes for academically challenged students. A great deal of paperwork is generated by a principal with four special ed classes to constantly check on progress as well as the progress of all students at Norris. Because Townsend was a school psychologist earlier in her career, she always talks about using data to help students achieve academically. She spends a lot of her time going through students’ cumulative folders and checking grades.

This Friday was another high stress day for the principal. Townsend knows a lot about students who live in poverty because she was raised in a rural community with high poverty. Almost all of the Norris students have a challenging home life; some of their parents are on drugs, some suffer from depression and alcoholism, and many lack an adequate education to stay employed, which makes it difficult for them to provide appropriate parenting to their children. Most of the students do not have basic support systems outside of school to perform well while they are there. But Townsend insists it is part of the mission at Norris and tells the staff it is up to them to try to help break the poverty cycle and educate these students to the best of their ability.

Everyone from teachers to the cafeteria workers and custodians understand this mission and are extremely supportive of students. They all have high expectations. Teachers reach out to parents, make home visits when they perceive it is safe to do so, and try to connect students with the community as well. One recent parent dinner was held at a church. There was an amazing dinner along with great conversations and entertainment and attendance was fantastic, according to Townsend.

 Friday is usually a challenging day for teachers as well. Students leave the building at 3:30 p.m. and do not return until 8 a.m. Monday. Teachers worry about students over the weekend and hope they make it back to school unharmed and ready to learn. Mondays are just as difficult because it takes students awhile to settle down after few or no routines and schedules at home.

 This particular Friday everyone is especially worried about four specific students because they are not sure what awaits them when they reach their home and how they will make it through the weekend. Let me introduce some of these students:

Larry, age 13, is Caucasian and was on the school steps Friday at 3:30 a.m. waiting for the principal to come to work. Larry’s alcoholic dad had been thrown out of his new girlfriend’s house because he came home at 2:30 a.m. and smashed all the pictures on the wall, threw all of the glass vases on the floor along with everything else he could see to break. Larry woke up from all the noise and the “girlfriend” threw both Larry and his dad into the street. Larry didn’t know where to go, so he walked all the way to school knowing when the doors eventually opened the principal would find help for him. Larry’s mother is in a rehabilitation center in another state for the third time and the only alternatives for him are relocating with a relative in Oregon or foster care. In spite of all of this, Larry who struggles academically, is still hopeful about life, and wants desperately to stay at this school because everyone there seems to care about him.

 Jamie is a bright 13-year-old Native American boy who has a home, but most of the time he never has anyone else there. He has become very adept at cooking and even shares recipes and new dishes with one of his teachers. Jamie has a charming personality, is a stellar athlete and has the ability to be a top student. Currently, however he barely makes C’s in most of his classes. Allegedly his mother is a woman “of the street.” Jamie rarely sees her at night or on weekends so no homework is ever monitored. No real parent relationship has ever been established. He spends a great deal of time in the office and is frequently in trouble at school. Some think he just likes the attention he gets from office staff. He is very lonely but covers this by acting out. His friends say he loves coming to the office to see the secretary and the principal. Last year he got in trouble with the law, took to the streets and found trouble at his door step. Principal Townsend tried to get the mother’s permission to send him to Boys Town or the Hersey School but the mother refused. This year his behavior is being monitored daily by staff who work with him constantly to keep him out of a juvenile facility. The secretary said she had even talked to her husband about the possibility of taking Jamie in but had second thoughts when the boy was in trouble with the law.

Tanisha is a very bright, African American seventh-grader, who up until the past few months has been an exemplary student with straight A’s. She is popular, polite and respectful. Recently, however, her teachers noticed that she had become quiet and sullen. They are worried she is depressed and her grades are now all Ds and Fs. Tanisha lives in the projects. Her mother has always been actively involved with Tanisha’s school life but for the past several months, phone calls and emails have not been answered. The school counselor and the seventh-grade team have had several sessions with Tanisha to try to ascertain the problem but she would not talk about any problems at home or school. They eventually asked the principal to speak with her and Tanisha finally shared that her mother has a new boyfriend who has moved in and now her mother is on crack cocaine and out of a job. When asked if there was food in the refrigerator, Tanisha replied, “very little.” So Principal Townsend grabbed her wallet, emptied out the money and said, “ Tanisha, let’s brainstorm a grocery list for you and your two younger sisters.” Tanisha immediately asked for hamburger, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and a host of other vegetables and fruits. Tanisha said it is now her responsibility to get her younger sisters ready for school in the morning, and sometimes this is a challenge with clothes, hair and money for supplies. She said, “I am willing to do this and love my younger sisters and only hope my mother can get better and help out more.” At this point, what choices does this 13-year-old young lady have? Principal Townsend told Tanisha that she would have to notify the authorities and Tanisha said, “That’s just fine, we do need help.” On the way out the door of the principal’s office, Tanisha looked back and said, “Please don’t worry about me, I have a knife.” The principal reflected on this statement and replied, “You have a knife, Tanisha?” And Tanisha said, “Yes, you know, to protect myself.”

Angela, a Caucasian seventh grader, was another student the seventh-grade team of teachers and the counselors asked the principal to speak with this particular Friday. The teachers have acknowledged that Angela appears to have above-average ability but believe she is working way below grade level. The principal studied Angela’s school records and noticed there was a drop in her grades and test scores in fourth grade and the decline has continued. When Angela came to the office she was a bit nervous, wondering what she had done wrong, because she never gets in trouble. She is shy and reluctant to share anything about herself at school. She came into the office with trepidation but the principal immediately saw the worried look and assured her she was not in trouble and wanted to share some good news with her.

 The principal said, “Angela, you are a very bright girl and I want to share some information with you.” (i.e., her cognitive ability scores indicate she is way above average). Townsend went on to inform Angela that because she was blessed with this ability, the teachers and administrators wanted to know what they could do to help her achieve at her appropriate levels. Angela began to smile and then shrugged her shoulders. Then the principal said, “Angela, I noticed that your grades started to drop in the fourth grade, was there a reason?” Angela immediately replied, “That was the year my mother died of cancer.” The conversation continued and focused on her dad’s sadness and the fact that her father “just couldn’t get over what had happened to the family. Angela shared that because her dad was so sad she took on many of the responsibilities her mother had before she became sick. This included making many of the meals and helping to care for her younger siblings. Townsend immediately told Angela that the school could help her and her father and indicated she would call to her father and set up a conference.

These are just some of the stories in a typical Friday in an urban school with high student poverty rates. There are thousands of middle schools in this country not only trying to advance academic achievement but also acting as surrogate parents. While this school is located in an urban setting, similar scenarios play out in rural districts as well. Their faculty and staff can share many more stories of how they try to erase loneliness for students with love and kindness. School personnel also provide a healthy school culture characterized as caring, showing empathy and concern every hour of the day.

All of this is way beyond preparing for state achievement tests, translating the Common Core Standards into a more effective curriculum, and learning new instructional strategies to better equip all students to compete in a global economy. These people go above and beyond in this school and should be recognized as champions. Their gifts, talents and contributions go way beyond any teacher evaluation instrument. Trying to make a difference in the lives of children requires people who are committed to making school a worthwhile and enjoyable experience. School boards and administrators can help in these battles that make up the current war on poverty by making certain that policies and schedules allow teachers to collaborate on strategies to help at-risk students. They can also support before-school and after-school programs that may represent a safe haven for students. Another important piece for boards and administrators is support for staff professional development that promotes understanding for the problems associated with poverty.

Kids Count Data Center , “Children in Poverty”

Illinois Interactive Report Card,

U.S Census numbers for poverty,

For additional reading
Bryce Miller, “Coach helps Des Moines North team rise through challenges in and out of gym,” Des Moines Register, January 11, 2014

Oliver Thomas “A poverty, not education, crisis in U.S; column USA Today,, December 10, 2013.

Andrea Elliott, “Invisible Child Girl in the Shadows: Dasani’s Homeless Life,” New York Times, December 2013 projects/2013/invisible-child/

Outside factors seriously affect student outcomes
By Sandra Watkins and John Hunt

Poverty has a profound influence on student achievement. Living in poverty matters and it matters a great deal in terms of student achievement outcomes. But just what does it mean to be “living in poverty”? Poverty is based on income thresholds set by the U.S. Census Bureau, and vary depending on family size. The U.S. poverty level for a family of three is currently set at an annual income of $19,530, whereas a family of six can earn $31,590 and be considered to be living at the 100 percent poverty level. Unfortunately, the number of students living in poverty is growing. In Illinois, the rate has increased from 43 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2013, according to Illinois Report Card data.

With such numbers continuing to rise, parents and the community will have to play an even greater role in shaping student achievement outcomes. In many school reform circles and communities however, it is not in vogue to acknowledge that truth. In a 2011 Education Week article, “Why attention will return to non-school factors,” authors Jeffrey Henig and S. Paul Reville contended: “Our vision of the future of education reform is simple: American schools won’t achieve their goal of ‘all students at proficiency’ unless they attend to the non-school factors.” They claim there will need to be a moral commitment to educating other people’s children and schools cannot do this alone.

In 2004, Craig T. Ramey, professor and research scholar at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and his wife Sharon L. Ramey, a fellow child development researcher, extrapolated data from several research studies they conducted, concluding that high-risk children who do not have a solid preschool experience are “likely to start kindergarten two (or more) years behind their age mates reared in more typical environments.” They suggest that these delays present serious challenges for students from poverty when they enter school and also serious challenges for teachers and school districts as a whole, after these students enter school. If the home or community does not provide an enriching environment during summer, these students will fall further behind, often referred to as the summer lag or gap.

To gauge the seriousness of this, look at the actual hours children are in school. Most students spend an average of six hours a day at school, while 18 hours are on their own or under the supervision and monitoring of parents, child care providers, surrogate parents, and/or the community. Weekends account for an additional 48 hours away from school for a grand weekly total of 138 out of 168 hours a week. Compare this out-of-school time with the 30 hours students average each week in school!

The salient questions that parents, school board members and school staff should be asking are: What is happening to and for these students during those 138 hours? How does this impact student learning and achievement? How do “out of school factors” affect the short- and long-term achievement of students in poverty as they progress through school? What interventions are needed and what are the pathways to success for these children? What price will Illinois and the country pay if necessary interventions are not provided and solutions are not found?

   The National Center for Children in Poverty’s Fact Sheet: Basic Facts About Low-Income Children under 18 Years, 2011 claims children represent 24 percent of the population in America and account for 34 percent of those living in poverty. The document says 45 percent of children younger than 18 live in low-income families with 22 percent living in poor families — a number that has been on the rise. Childhood poverty is associated with students dropping out of school, low academic achievement, more mental and physical health challenges, delinquent behaviors, higher levels of teenage pregnancy, and higher levels of adolescent and early adulthood unemployment. Therefore, family backgrounds for children in poverty as well as a multitude of other “out of school” factors have a great influence on children’s academic achievement.

Child Health USA 2012 states that more than 16 million students younger than 18 were living in households with incomes below the poverty threshold. In 2011, Helen F. Ladd suggested in The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management that a variety of well-documented symptoms impact educational outcomes for these students, including that in 2010, 46.9 percent of children living in poverty were in parent homes with a female head of household; this statistic climbs to 60 percent for children younger than age five. Poverty is not just an urban problem; more than 25 percent of rural children live in poverty compared to 17 percent of urban children.

According to the 2011 Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children, only 43 percent of children living in poverty were in excellent health. Physical health problems associated with poverty are: low birth weight, asthma, elevated blood levels, obesity, and anemia. Children with Medicaid or other public health coverage were 17 percent more likely than children with private insurance to have been on regular medication. In 2010, approximately 73 percent of children living in poverty were insured by public coverage and 15 percent were uninsured. Only 56 percent of uninsured children received a well-child visit to the doctor in the past year. In addition, a quarter of the uninsured children did not have a regular place for health care such as a doctor’s office or a health maintenance organization (HMO). And about one third of the students living in poverty visited an emergency room in the past year with multiple visits.

In terms of dental care, children living in homes below the poverty level were at least twice as likely to have unmet dental care needs. Poor families struggle to provide adequate and safe housing, food and medications, and are less likely to be engaged in health-promoting activities such as recreation or a program of physical fitness or to maintain a healthy diet. Parents in poverty tend to have unhealthy lifestyles characterized by smoking, excessive drinking and illegal drug use.

In Providence, Rhode Island, one in five children who entered kindergarten in 2003 had lead poisoning, which impacts and impairs programming of cells and cell connections along with mis-wiring of the central nervous system. When the umbilical cord has high levels of lead, children experience slower sensorimotor or visual-motor development and intelligence is affected. Other pollutants such as pesticides and pollutants from cars are also responsible for neurocognitive deficits and health problems for students living around toxic areas.

Many parents in low-income households struggle to provide adequate, healthy nutritious meals for their children. The Social Policy Report of 2011 — Household Food Insecurity — Serious Concerns for Child Development reported 8.4 million, or 21.3 percent, of households with children in 2009, were food insecure. Children raised in these homes, according to the report, are at an increased risk for challenging health issues such as a compromised immune system, increased risk for infections, as well as nervous system complaints.

Early and frequent cognitive stimulation in the home is extremely important to the development of expressive and receptive language. One of the key findings by researchers Guang Gao and Kathleen M. Harris indicates cognitive stimulation at home was by far the most important influence in mediating the effect of poverty on intellectual achievement. Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley contend in their 1995 research that data on children from birth to age 4 shows a remarkable difference in the number of words heard.

In one week, the average child in a professional family hears 215,000 words or language experiences, while the child in a working-class family hears 125,000 words, and the average child in a welfare family hears only 62,000 words or language experiences. From birth to 48 months, this means the child from the welfare family is only exposed to three million words versus the working-class family with six million, and the professional class with 11 million words. This will result in a huge difference for the poverty child entering kindergarten. By the time these children enter pre-school or kindergarten, an achievement gap has been firmly implanted and puts the child from poverty at an extreme disadvantage before he or she even gets to school.

Authoritarian parenting styles, including harsh discipline and negative reinforcement can also have a deleterious effect. The Hart research also reveals that in the typical welfare child’s home, children receive only five encouraging remarks compared to 11 discouragements per hour versus the children in a working-class family who receive 12 encouragements and seven discouragements. The professional-class child receives 32 affirmative remarks and only five discouraging remarks in an hour. In a year’s time, this puts the child in the professional-class household at an extreme advantage receiving more than 166,000 encouragements and only 26,000 discouragements. This places the welfare class child at an extreme disadvantage with only 26,000 encouragements and 57,000 discouragements. The working-class child was also at somewhat of a disadvantage receiving 62,000 encouraging words along with 36,000 discouraging words.

It’s easy to identify the out-of-school factors that challenge students living in poverty on a daily basis — factors that influence student learning and achievement. Solutions are available. However, something that affects half the school population is too massive to tackle just at school. School districts need help to accomplish these goals. So what are some recommendations that could turn things around?

• High-quality all-day, year-round early childhood centers for pre-school students with required weekly seminars for parents on ­­how to provide a nurturing home focused on language development, proper nutrition and health care, best discipline practices, stability, safety, and emotional supports.

• “One-stop” health clinics from preschool through grade 12 that include medical, dental and mental health services available to children and their parents.

• Before- and after-school care Pre-K through grade 8.

• Pre-natal counseling for pregnant mothers and educational services for pregnant teens.

• A community task force to investigate local “out of school factors” and how poverty impacts performance in schools to create an understanding between the school district and the community that students living in poverty have many challenges that impact their learning and achievement. Part of the task force responsibility should be to devise and implement an action plan, with a major goal to create partnerships among local, regional and state organizations to provide needed services to enhance student well-being. .

About the authors
Sandra Watkins is a professor of educational leadership at Western Illinois University, Macomb, a former school principal, assistant and associate superintendent. John Hunt is a professor of educational leadership at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and a former school superintendent.

Guang Gao, and Kathleen M. Harris, (2000). “The mechanisms mediating the effects of poverty on children’s intellectual development,” Demography, volume 37 No.4.

Betty Hart, and Todd Risely, Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Brookes Publishing, (1995)

Jeffrey Henig, and S. Paul Reville, “Why attention will return to non-school factors.” Education Week, May 23, 2011.

Illinois Interactive Report Card, (2013) Illinois State Board of Education.

Craig T. Ramey, and Sharon L. Ramey, “Early learning and school readiness: Can early intervention make a difference?” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 2004.

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