According to the Children's Defense Fund, 17.6 percent of this nation's children live in poverty -- about one of every six children. The numbers are rising, and, alarmingly, the number of children living in extreme poverty -- families with incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty line -- is rising even more dramatically. They live in cities, towns and rural areas. More than 30 rural counties in 11 states, for example, have poverty rates higher than the poorest big cities. Other factors also come into play, including race and ethnicity, class and immigration status. Fifty-eight percent of children of immigrant families, for example, live in low-income families, compared with 35 percent of children of native-born families.
Teaching in Poverty
Some teachers find themselves teaching impoverished children by happenstance. Others have been recruited, with various incentives, specifically to work in high-poverty areas. But are they equipped to teach children in poverty? And what might help them succeed? Teaching Tolerance visited three schools that successfully work with children from impoverished backgrounds. Educators in each school offer a glimpse of what works.
Some have created their own programs. Others draw from established programs. In the end, their words echo each other, focusing on the motto of Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a school-based academic support program for grades 5 through 12: Rigor plus support equals success.
Not the words usually uttered when people speak of children in poverty. And maybe that's part of the problem.
A Rigorous Road
Consider rigor, the first factor in the AVID equation: Students from impoverished backgrounds need structure, routine, challenging work and rigorous demands.
"We're blunt in AVID," says Katherine Dooley of Orange Glen High School in Escondido. "Education is a way out of poverty. The goal is that you're going to get into a four-year university, and that is going to change your life."
Repetition, too, plays a vital role. It took Dooley some time to learn that lesson, feeling frustrated on the third and fourth times she'd repeat instructions and a student still wasn't getting it.
"Finally I just began repeating it four, five, six and even seven times until they did," she says.
Another sign of rigor: Dooley links AVID students with gifted and talented students in the same courses. "AVID students need socialization. Left alone, they use a very informal discourse with me like, 'Yeah.' I tell them they need to say, 'Yes.' I want to build their cultural capital. I owe them that as much as knowing the derivative of something."
Of the eleven AVID teachers at Orange Glen, six are Advanced Placement teachers, including Dooley, who teaches AP calculus. This, Dooley feels, is another important tenet of working with children in poverty.
"You don't lie to them," she says. "(You) tell them it is very hard work."
Rigor, too, is at the core of TAAS's success. At the school for homeless teens in San Diego, curriculum is not limited to math, science and the arts; an array of social rules and behavioral expectations complements the more conventional academic challenges. Student success in abiding by school rules is rewarded with points they can use to purchase items in the school store.
"The rules and structure are important because typically people who are homeless live in a world void of structure," says Scott Gross, who facilitates community trainings on poverty for The Village Training Institute in San Diego. "To be successful in society, people need to be able to operate in structured environments. TAAS gives students an opportunity to practice that structure."
Our students need safety, respect and high expectations. They don't need charity, but opportunity.
The Structure of Support
On any given day at West Powellhurst Elementary in Oregon, 10 parents speaking three different languages can be found reading to kids in the library. This is Raisa Balashov's English Language Learner Parent Read Aloud Program, now in its sixth year. The program encourages parent partnerships with the school, involving families in their children's educations. "Relationships are paramount," Balashov says.
The reading program is just one of the supports the school offers. Others help impoverished students learn skills and rules they'll encounter in the professional world:
- In Jason Adam's 1st-grade classroom, a stuffed dinosaur serves as a "talking stick." Only the student holding the dinosaur is allowed to speak, helping children develop more formal social skills.
- In Annie Falconer's 2nd-grade class, students use an appointment book to pair up for group work. Guided encouragement also helps students improve social behaviors. When Sina is bothering her neighbor, for example, Falconer calmly says, "Sina, can you make a better decision right now?" Teachers never raise their voices to students at West Powellhurst, another model of respect.
- In Meghan McLaughlin's 4th-grade classroom, students make presentations about what they have learned over the course of the school year. In response, classmates fill out slips of paper giving them kind, specific feedback. Feedback sentences begin with such phrases as, "Perhaps maybe next time you could..." or "It was helpful to me when you..."
For Dooley, at Orange Glen in Escondido, Calif., support starts before the first bell rings and doesn't end when the final bell sounds.
"I keep my room open late because they can do their homework in here with me," she says. "This space is important for that reason. Also, I teach them to work in groups so that they can help and tutor each other. And that's just what happens in the late afternoons in here. Students are in cooperative groups, naturally tutoring each other. They only come to me if they've exhausted all other resources."
In reiterating AVID's higher-education goal, teachers talk bluntly with students about what obstacles stand in their way. Dooley asks students, "What's your biggest obstacle now? And what are solutions to get past it?" Dooley constantly helps students understand they are in charge of their lives.
As Dooley speaks about overcoming obstacles, a student named Jesus bursts into the classroom. A senior, he's there to tell Mrs. Dooley that he just received another scholarship, bringing his total to $20,000. He is off to Berkeley in the fall.
Earlier, a former student of Dooley's dropped by for a visit. He had just finished his second year at Chico State. He and Dooley gave each other a big hug. "Are you getting smarter?" she asked. "Yes," he replied. "I told you that you would!" she exclaimed.
At TAAS in San Diego, Jeff Heil is frustrated when he sees adults lower academic expectations for his students because they are homeless.
"Our students need safety, respect and high expectations," Heil says. "They don't need charity, but opportunity."
Given such opportunity, TAAS students excel.
The school is gaining a reputation as a hotbed of aspiring filmmakers. Two years ago, a TAAS student-produced film, Runaway, ran away with the grand prize at the San Diego County Innovative Video in Education competition. The film went on to garner a nomination in the 2003 Syracuse International Film Festival. This spring, another film, Shadow, written and produced by a TAAS student, received the iVIE award in the Social Issues category.
Bolstered by success in a competition that draws entries from wealthy school districts, TAAS students learn that drive and intelligence are not tied to socio-economic class.
That's true at West Powellhurst, too, where students' reading test scores are off the charts. In April 2005, the school won a Celebrating Student Success Award as one of 12 schools in Oregon that over-achieve. Ninety-five percent of the children in the school -- including ESL students -- passed the state 3rd-grade test. Typical scores of other schools in Portland run in the low 80s.
In the end, the underpinnings of teaching students in poverty are the hallmark of any good educator: create an emotionally safe environment where students have a sense that the classroom is a family, and offer academically rigorous school work with the structure that supports success. For educators working with children in poverty, these cornerstones need to be firmly and deliberately laid.
Dooley sent 56 seniors off to a new future last year. She hopes the ripple will be felt by the world. "I always urge them to get out and vote," she says. "Be political! And remember when the revolution comes, I was on your side."
A poster quoting Cesar Chavez in Heil's room supports the concept of revolution as well:
"Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore."