COLUMBIA — As Jolene Yoakum prepares to become a leader in Columbia Public Schools, one of the issues on her mind is child poverty.
In the district, almost 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Yoakum is familiar with the subject. In the Seguin Independent School District in Seguin, Texas, where she is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, 66 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
"I noticed that trend has been growing upwards gradually," Yoakum said. "From what I’ve experienced, that’s a trend across many states."
In the Houston Independent School District, where Yoakum worked as the director and interim assistant superintendent of secondary curriculum, instruction and assessment, 79 percent of students qualify.
She said she and Columbia Superintendent Chris Belcher have discussed the academic achievement gap as it relates to poverty.
"One of the strategies that has been consistently successful with meeting the needs of students in poverty has been partnering with parents and ensuring that we are working together," she said. "Having the strong parent partnership is going to be key. How can we continue to build on what is already there?"
Yoakum, who will succeed Wanda Brown as assistant superintendent for secondary education beginning July 2012, said she has also started to familiarize herself with the discussions over school boundary realignment in Columbia.
"It seems like the district is doing a lot to have those discussions and give people the opportunity to have discussion," she said of the ongoing redistricting forums. "Communication seems to be a strength."
Yoakum received a doctoral degree in education leadership from Nova Southeastern University and taught family and consumer science at Excelsior Springs School District, near Kansas City, from 1981 to 2001.
Yoakum grew up in northern Kansas City and said Missouri has always felt like home. She said she is excited to move to Columbia and be closer to her many family members in Kansas City. Four of Yoakum's siblings and one of her three adult children and daughter-in-law all live in that area.
"It seems like the community itself has a lot to celebrate — a lot of positives," Yoakum said of Columbia. "The school district has just been very successful and I think that has to be a result of the teamwork between the community and the school system. I'm looking forward to joining and being a part of it."