My Turn: Education and poverty - another look

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2003

Data on state benchmark tests reveal "students who are living in poverty," (poverty is defined as families who have lived in poverty for two or more generations with an annual income of $14,368 or less,) are the population of students who are not doing well in our schools. This same data reveals that Alaska Native students who do not live in poverty, when compared to Caucasian students, showed no differences in achievement levels. My point is, for years ethnicity and poverty have been clumped together. Yet, new research concludes there is a culture to poverty, which has its own hidden rules, regardless of one's ethnic make-up.

Collectively, the largest populations of Americans who live in poverty are women and children. Per capita, Alaska has one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty in the country, whereas the United States is highest compared to other rich industrial countries (Sweden 1.6 percent, Germany 2.8 percent, France 4.6 percent, United Kingdom 7.4 percent, Canada 9.3 percent, U.S.A. 20.4 percent). From 1987 to 1996, 12 to 14 million children - one in five - lived in poverty. In 1993, 22.7 percent of children were classified as poor, the highest poverty rate experienced by children since the mid-1960s.

Research demonstrates that children who come from poverty do not come to school with the same experiences as those children from middle class and there is a strong correlation between student success in school and socio-economic statues. When children begin school, the language and experiences of children during their preschool years significantly affect their performance in school. Since schools operate as middle-class institutions; there is an expectation that when children enter school they are enriched and ready to learn. According to RIF (Reading is Fundamental), children from poverty start school with 25-100 hours of reading and or exposure to written print, whereas middle-class children start school with 500-1,000 hours of reading.

In households where parents had a college degree the number of verbal exchanges and utterances of professional parents to their children were not only greater in number but also richer in the use of nouns, modifiers, past-tense verbs, declarative sentences, and affirmative feedback. In the families from poverty, the utterances were both fewer in quantity and less rich in nouns, modifiers, verbs, past-tense verbs and clauses. Additionally, after initiating or responding to their children, the parents of children who live in poverty continued talking to their children less than half as often as did the professional parents. As a result, in each hour of their lives, children from poverty received less than half the language experience than the children from a higher socio-economic status.

Now that I have pointed out the correlation between socio-economics and school failure what can we do? Simple, we do not excuse them, nor do we scold them. We teach them.

Despite the obstacles poverty can create the one constant in the lives of poor children is education. For many of these children, their school is a safe place where they are fed, cared about and appreciated. For many of Juneau's children the two meals they eat at school may be their only meals.

According to No Child Left Behind legislation, children from all segments of the population must pass high stakes tests and be proficient readers by third grade. I read an article recently that stated that if a male child does not learn to read by the fourth grade he is three times more likely to be incarcerated by the age of 18 than the reading male.

Recently, I read that our governor is proposing cuts to education. It will be difficult to do more with less, and the children who are enriched will do well regardless; their families will see to it. It is the silent ones that I worry about.

Programs that affect children should not be cut. We must join together and be advocates for those who have no advocate. They are depending on us.

Carmen Mastronardo-Katasse is principal of Riverbend Community School Juneau.



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