Beating generational poverty a key to learning equality
STORM LAKE — Besting calculus and physics is tough enough, beating poverty for a student is a whole different challenge.
Recently, Storm Lake School District leaders attended the Iowa School Board Convention, which featured a conference on generational poverty. The issue is far from new for the locals, in a community where three out of every four students are from families with income below the level to qualify for free or reduced school lunches.
The challenge is breaking the cycle.
“Poverty has a really big impact in our schools, and it crosses all the ethnic lines,” Superintendent Carl Turner reflected after the conference. “All the research shows it is probably the biggest negative impact. Sometimes our kids don’t believe post-secondary education is even a possibility for them — they have no examples in their families of people who have actually crossed that bridge.”
The school board convention explored programs that Burlington School District has put in place to help children from poverty situations get through school. “We came to the realization that these were very similar to what we’re trying to do — provide extra help during home room period, putting some supports in place. It’s really all about adults paying attention to kids and what is happening in their lives beyond school, and letting them know we are there to help them.”
Programs like AVID and the Storm Lake Charter School are targeting students who may become the first generation in their families to complete school and go on to college.
“It is possible, and here is how you do it,” Turner said of the approach. “We have to do a nice job of convincing the kid that it doesn’t matter where you came from and what has happened to you — you can rise above it.”
But can they? Test results show students from disadvantaged backgrounds struggling. Some may go on to be honor students, but for others, reality is that school is not the only priority.
“We have some kids supporting their families, and the truth is that they have no other choice,” Turner said. “If we know we have a student at the high school working long hours, we will try to redesign their schedule.”
Turner noted that the public may not fully realize the pressures these teenagers face, especially in a community where their parents may work night shifts in industry.
“When we have a very hot day and let school out early for the whole district, a lot of people ask me why we make that decision since the elementary, middle school and high school are air conditioned,” Turned explained. “We do it because one building, the Early Childhood Center, is not air conditioned, and reality here is that a lot of our older students are responsible for caring for their younger brothers and sisters who may attend there.”
The generational poverty conference broke no new ground for the Storm Lakers.
“To me, it reinforced what we should have already learned — that we tend to forget some of the situations our kids are dealing with outside school, and the responsibilities that are on their shoulders. We need to think more about the whole person, and not just the student in a particular subject area we are teaching,” the superintendent said.
The event encouraged the local leaders to redouble efforts for staff to build relationships with the students.
“We have to find out where they are coming from, and we have to show them that we care, that school is a safe place for them, if we are going to make any progress,” Turner said. “We’ve talked about that a lot recently.”
The realities of poverty also mean that students may begin school already with setbacks. Families where parents work multiple jobs, or where the parents are illiterate or English challenged, may mean that no one has read to a child in their early years. They may not have had access to a computer at home, as others have, or been able to attend events and travel as more fortunate others do.
“The more hooks they have that they can hook knowledge on to, the easier it is to learn,” Turner explained. “Poverty does cause those situations. The way you close that gap seems to be teaching what they call content vocabulary — you can’t recreate the background knowledge a child has missed, but you can try to give them a vocabulary that is common with the other students.”
An emphasis now is teaching visual along with vocal. “If you see what a word looks like and means, you are more likely to pick it up and retain it,” Turner says.
In past years, the district has worked to try to obtain enough computers to go around, knowing that some students will not be able to have them at home.
At the high school level, there are probably enough computers that every student could take one home — but home is not where they want school work being done.
“Sometimes people question this policy, but we’ve come to believe that the important things should be done at school, and there is lots of research behind that,” Turner said. “Life situations may dictate that some students might not be able to do hours of homework, so we try to create time during the day. People use to traditional education may not understand that, they think we should send a couple of hours of homework home every day.
“It’s not that we’re lowering expectations, it’s that we know a student may be working, caring for siblings, or facing other disadvantages. We’ve decided that homework is not a hill we want to die on. Instead, we’ll redesign what we do.”