Something is clear: The Missourian has only just begun reporting on poverty in Columbia Public Schools.
Our interest was inspired by a statistic that district spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark shared with us earlier in the semester: This year, 38.9 percent of students are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, a program schools use to measure student poverty.
That seemed bad, but there is worse. In St. Louis City, 85.7 percent of students are enrolled in the program.
The numbers only told part of the story, though.
When we began interviews, the numbers became personal stories.
Teachers told us that some children come to school not knowing how to spell their name. Some are distracted because they don’t know when their next meal will be. Others don’t know what to do when school lets out because they are unsure of where they will sleep that night. These things were incredibly hard for us — both from financially secure homes — to hear.
We knew poverty existed, but we didn't realize how damaging it can sometimes be on children’s education.
Ann Alofs, who teaches third grade at West Boulevard Elementary School, said the reality of her students’ lives keeps her up at night.
We walked out of interviews struck by the challenges teachers deal with on a day-to-day basis. But we were also inspired by the positive outlook many maintained.
“That’s what we’re here for,” Alofs said. “The people who do this, we're not happy to hear that children are living like this, but we feel very strongly about doing the very best we can every day.”
Our hope is that our first big story will get people talking.
Almost four in 10 public school children in Columbia face uncertainty about food and shelter. Chances are, you know some of them. We wrote this story, in part, to start showing how close to home child poverty is.
For our story this week, we looked at how the growing poverty rate affects teachers. But we know this is only the beginning. There are so many more stakeholders to talk to. We want to hear the stories of children and families in poverty. We want to find out how we as a community got to this point and if things are going to get better any time soon. We wonder what the rising poverty rate means for the future of the district.
Covering poverty in the district, Columbia and Boone County could easily be continued for years. Sadly. We think that as journalists we must do much more to let people know what is really going on.
"If there were rules for how to solve this we would do it," Alofs said. "We are all a community, and we want these children to succeed and families to succeed, and families want their kids to succeed."
Although we will soon be gone — one of us will graduate next semester, and the other will travel abroad — we hope we can pass our enthusiasm and interest on to the next batch of reporters.
Garrett Evans and Abby Eisenberg are education reporters at the Missourian. The paper's education editor, Elizabeth Brixey, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.