COLUMBIA — Child poverty is the biggest issue Chris Belcher faces as superintendent of Columbia Public Schools.
"You ask any of the teachers in Columbia, some who have been here for 20 years, what’s the biggest change you see? The number of kids in poverty, the number of families that are in transition and the more behavioral issues that are coming into school," he said.
As we continue our coverage of poverty in schools, we'd like to hear about your experiences.
If you work in the school system, how has the rising rate of poverty been most apparent to you? Add your voice in a comment below, or email Elizabeth Brixey, the Missourian's education editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The number of students in the district who qualify for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price meals to students from low-income homes, has risen steadily over most of the past decade. Columbia teachers have noticed the change as they have been confronted with more challenges in the classroom.
"I don’t think you really realize how complicated the job is until you’re in it and you realize that somebody can’t learn if they don’t have their glasses and Mom can’t afford any and that somebody can’t learn because they’re worried about where they are going to sleep tonight," said Ann Alofs, who teaches third grade at West Boulevard Elementary School.
At West Boulevard, 82.3 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals — the second highest rate in the district after Benton Elementary School, at 91.3 percent.
This year, children qualify for free meals at school if they come from a home where the total annual income is $29,055 or less for a family of four. Children qualify for reduced-price meals if they come from a home where the annual income falls between $29,056 and $41,348 for a family of four.
- 38.9 percent of Columbia Public Schools students are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, up from 31.1 percent in 2007, the year before the recession officially began. That's 6,888 of 17,709 children.
- In 11 of 28 schools, at least 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals.
- Statewide, the number of students enrolled in the lunch program has been rising steadily, from 41.8 percent in 2007 to 47.8 percent now.
- Nationwide, 66.6 percent of lunches served were at a free or reduced-price in the fiscal year 2011.
Signs of poverty at school
Many times, teachers have no way of knowing which students are in poverty.
"Most kids are not going to tell you," said Lisa Turner, a home-school coordinator at West Boulevard. "They are not going to share that they slept at the homeless shelter or they didn’t eat at all last night."
Turner said additional signs of need at home can be when students:
- Come to school tired or hungry
- Act defiantly or disrespectfully in the classroom, especially when they don’t usually behave that way
- Come to school in clothes that don’t fit or aren’t appropriate for the weather
- Arrive on the first day with no school supplies or backpack
- Have inconsistent attendance due to limited access to transportation
These disruptions can cause students to fall behind on schoolwork, often making it difficult for them to catch up, Alofs said. She has to make an extra effort to bring them along, which sometimes means sitting with them at recess or assigning a student teacher to help with lessons they’ve missed.
Belcher, a teacher and administrator for 28 years, has observed that children in poverty often come to school without the same level of socialization as their higher-income peers.
"We are getting kids in the school that don’t know how to engage appropriately with others; they don’t have the same interactions they used to have, so they come to us unable to socialize appropriately," Belcher said.
"If you can’t do that, you start to be seen as a disruption," he continued. "You start to get an attitude that, 'They don’t like me,' and there’s all kinds of psychological changes that occur. Pretty soon, the kids think they are incapable — that they’re not worth it and that no one likes them. And they just start to act on the belief that they’re given."
Meeting immediate needs
Schools have programs in place to address a child's immediate needs, including food, clothes and school supplies. Those with more than 50 percent of their students enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program offer free breakfasts for every student in the school, regardless of their economic status.
In a partnership with The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri, schools can also arrange to send Buddy Packs home with students. These are filled with extra food for over the weekend.
The district also provides for students’ other immediate needs through partnerships with community organizations such as the Assistance League of Mid-Missouri, the Voluntary Action Center, the Salvation Army, The Wardrobe and local churches.
But beyond these district-wide programs, staff members at West Boulevard try to reach out individually to students they know are struggling. Turner, whose job includes keeping lines of communication open between families and the school, recalled that a teacher once offered to pay for a hotel room for a family while they looked for a spot at a local shelter.
When parents of her third-graders cannot afford school supplies for their children, Alofs tells them not to worry. Certain supplies are available through donations to the school, but sometimes she just goes ahead and buys them.
Mobility of students and families
Beyond basic needs, children in poverty tend to have more complex problems that affect their education.
Students who are living in poverty move more often, said Laura Schultz, a second-grade teacher at Benton Elementary. This causes stress for those students, she said.
"That student’s stress is then brought into the classroom and affects the classroom environment," said Schultz, who in is her fifth year of teaching at Benton.
Schultz said she also has noticed a higher number of students who are homeless or are living temporarily with another family.
"When children are in this situation, it is hard for them to focus on learning when they are stressed about not having a space to call their own," she said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, families who fall below the poverty line generally tend to move more often than those that do not. The 2010 census showed that almost 25 percent of U.S. families who lived below the poverty line had moved more than once that year.
At West Boulevard, Alofs said seven students from her third-grade class have left so far this year. This makes building a community of students a challenge, she said.
"I can’t imagine what it must be like to go to school one day, and your best friend doesn’t come the next day," Alofs said. "And I mean their papers are still on the bulletin board, their supplies are still sitting there and we never said goodbye."
Alofs said an important part of this process is keeping track of students once they leave. She does her best to let the new school know students' reading levels and academic abilities so they don't have to "start over again."
"I try to share information with other schools to say, 'I have been working with this family, and this is what you need to look for,'" she said. "Even if our families do leave, they will call and say, 'Ms. Turner, what do I have to do?' 'Who do I need to talk to?'"
Parkade Elementary School principal Amy Watkins said she and teachers at Parkade work hard to convey the information quickly from one school to the next. It is important, she said, to let other schools know what services and resources a specific student receives to make the process as seamless as possible. Parkade has 65 percent of its students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program this year, making it the sixth highest rate in the district.
Hickman teacher Phil Overeem, who has taught for more than 25 years, sees similar challenges with student mobility. He said that if a student comes into his class 60 percent through the semester, it is difficult to ask them to make up missed work. In many cases, they arrive with a transfer grade, which is one teachers at the previous school send along to let the new school know how students have been performing academically.
Overeem also tries to get a writing sample from these students to determine their academic ability and, based on that, try to meet their needs.
Lauren Daproza, who teaches a combined kindergarten and first-grade class at Benton Elementary, said students sometimes begin school without knowing the alphabet.
Belcher said children coming from a household of poverty come into school in kindergarten already behind — usually reading one to 1 1/2 levels below the expected level. In comparison, he said, children coming from a higher-income household typically come in reading one to 1 1/2 levels ahead of what is expected.
"So now I have a 3 1/2-year gap when they come to me on the first day," he said, "and trying to close that is extremely difficult."
Jeri Cay Phillips, a fifth-grade teacher at Parkade, said that for some families in poverty, education may not always be the top priority. Phillips, who has taught at Parkade for almost 25 years, said the family's priority might be trying to provide basic needs such as clothing, housing and food.
Daproza said communication with parents is important because they can let teachers know how their children learn best at home or what they need more help with.
"Just because kids go home doesn’t mean that learning stops there," she said.
But Daproza said she often struggles to make these connections because the contact number for a student is disconnected or she has several numbers listed for one child.
Then there is the baggage that school carries for some families.
"Oftentimes with families in poverty, school is not a positive place for them — either because it was hard, or they didn’t get support, or they, too, were raised in poverty and didn’t have their needs met," Watkins said. "We shouldn’t be surprised they aren’t racing through our doors to school."
To address this, Parkade staff members are developing a system to make themselves more available to parents who might not be able to come to the school. This includes scheduling home visits or finding accessible meeting places, such as local community centers.
'Education is your chance'
Benton Elementary, which enrolled 294 students this year, has the highest rate of participation in the free and reduced-price lunch program in the district — nine out of every 10 children.
Muhammad Bilal, a fourth-grade teacher there, said one of the challenges when working with children in poverty is what he called a "lack of exposure." He said another teacher at Benton told him that during a class trip to Jefferson City, a student saw a cow from the bus and said, "Look, a buffalo!"
"It is those little things that you think everyone should know, but maybe they don’t," Bilal said.
He recalled that during a fifth-grade graduation ceremony, another teacher told him that this would be the only graduation for some students.
"That weighs on you a little bit," Bilal said.
Susan Emory, principal of West Boulevard Elementary, said she believes in having high expectations for students, including encouraging them to go to college. Every Friday, teachers at the school wear T-shirts that read, "teaching future college students," and students wear ones that read "future college student."
Emory said her goal is for all of the students to visit MU twice before heading to middle school. She has sent two groups of fourth-graders this year and plans to send third-graders soon as well.
"In order for some students to get out of generational poverty, education is your chance," she said.
Encouraging students to go to college needs to start at the elementary school level, Emory said. Waiting until middle school is too late for some students.
Said Alofs: "It doesn’t seem like we used to have to talk to kids about that, but I think we do now."
Balance a challenge for teachers
Bilal said that although the majority of his students come from poverty, he thinks it is important to remind them that some kids are struggling even more than they are.
He tells his students that three-fifths of the world population have no access to clean drinking water. When he has asked them whether they know someone who does not have access to water, no one raises a hand.
"You’re asking them to be more adult than they are sometimes," Bilal said. "Sometimes it’s not fair, but I don’t want them to start using it as an excuse."
Even so, Bilal said he recognizes some students need extra support. If one of his students didn’t sleep last night, he lets them rest for a while in the classroom.
Bilal knows he needs to be flexible to some degree because of students' situations at home, but he said one of his greatest challenges is balance. Although he doesn't want his students to use poverty as an excuse to not do their homework, he also knows that part of his job is to nurture them.
"It’s just a balancing act, simple as that," Bilal said. "Sometimes you’re way off, and sometimes you’re right on. And I let them know that all the time. I say, 'Guys, I have to be your teacher, I have to be your mother, I have to be your father, I have to be your counselor.'"