BEHIND THE STORY: We've only begun to cover childhood poverty

Friday, December 16, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST

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.


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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

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Delcia Crockett December 16, 2011 | 7:26 a.m.

@"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."

Okay. Here is a challenge, Columbia. Now that you know it is here, in plain print for the knowing, what are you going to do about it?

For some time now, many of us have tried to draw attention to the fact that school lunches need to be free to all our childrenn - that an economic hardship division should not be placed amond any children in order for all children to have a healthy lunch at school.

Are you aware that some kids are placed under a certain stigma by other children because their family has accepted a free-lunch status?

How does that help promote a positive foundation for our growing children, learning what they live?

When all children are included in a free lunch program designed by a qualified nutritionist, then many problems can be resolved - such as childhood obesity and/or lack of essential elements in the diet needed by growing, young bodies.

The child who cannot spell his/her name because of needed nutrition on a daily basis, should be the red flag that alerts us all.

How can we remain in the mode that these chilren are invisible? And how can we turn our heads and assume they just do not exist?

Let's get on it, Columbia. All our children are deserving of this thing, top priority.

Now, you know - grab that thought and kick it on up. Make it a goal. The kids should win every time.

I am doing my part by forming an academy of early childhood learning, and for the ones who need it the most in this town. It will not be about money or anything, but a quality education as a foundation for kids who are deserving and will get that chance at life. I am starting small, but I am willing to take it as high and far as God wants it to be.

That is my way of doing my part for this town I have learned to call home, and who has given me so much that it can never be repaid - in the things that money cannot buy. I love Columbia, and I want to help do my part for the children here. They are very deserving. Let's help them as much as we possibly can.

Will you join me, by thinking on this problem in Columbia - our children being lost to all the negativity - and find a niche of your own to help in some way?

Thank you, Missourian, for bringing these facts to the public eye. That is much needed and much overdue. Let's kick it, Columbia.

~Delcia Crockett
composer, writer, teacher

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 16, 2011 | 8:20 a.m.

"For some time now, many of us have tried to draw attention to the fact that school lunches need to be free to all our childrenn"

No such thing as a free lunch. When taxpayers are forced to provide lunch for more than 1 in 3 students, it's a clear sign that too many people are selfishly choosing to have children they can't support.

In fact, that's a good question for the reporters to ask when interviewing parents. Don't make the mistake that the AP reporter did in Don't be afraid to ask questions such as: "Why did you choose to have a child when you're still a teenager?" or "Why did you choose to have three children with three different people?" or "Why do you think other people should be forced to pay for your choice to have children when you can't even support yourself?" After all, many of your readers will be asking those questions.

To "let people know what is really going on," put some of the spotlight on how parental selfishness, laziness and irresponsibility frequently is the cause for childhood poverty.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle December 16, 2011 | 8:51 a.m.

And why can't we get behind the idea of contraceptive acceptance, availability, and use? Children are obviously no longer an asset to society; they are a huge, huge burden. We have the technology to decouple the basic biological urge to reproduce, from the actual reproduction of burdensome children.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 16, 2011 | 9:06 a.m.

Derrick: I had no idea condoms were in such short supply.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks December 16, 2011 | 9:20 a.m.

"After all, many of your readers will be asking those questions." Jimmy

Great Questions. It seems that many younger reporters do not have the life experiences that it takes to tackle real world problems and report it as needed these days. None of them had to suffer most of their life or have yet to bust there butts for 20 years to see all their hard work get taken away.

(Report Comment)
ann Peters December 16, 2011 | 9:21 a.m.

Athens GA. is dealing with the same issue, please read Dec 12 article Athens Banner Herald.

(Report Comment)
ann Peters December 16, 2011 | 9:29 a.m.

Athens GA. is CoMo with better weather they are dealing with some of the same issues we are.

Whatever It Takes — the local initiative begun last year with the goal of ensuring that by 1 p.m. July 1, 2020 all young people in Athens-Clarke County are on track to graduate from a postsecondary education — will unveil its plan for that lofty goal this afternoon.

“The real culture change that we’re talking about here is that we have the same expectations for all children as we do for our own children, speaking from my two-parent-household, graduated-from-college, middle-class perspective,” said Tim Johnson, executive director of Whatever It Takes and of longtime educational support group Family Connection.

“If my kid wants to be a mechanic, great. He’s going to need to go get some post-secondary education at Athens Tech,” Johnson said.

“If a child in Pauldoe wants to a be a doctor, great. Here are the things she’s going to have to do to get to that point, including graduating from medical school.

“But it doesn’t have anything to do with where they live. Every child is expected to go achieve some sort of post-secondary education.”

For the past decade, there has been no shortage of groups in Athens doing their part to help pull children out of the cycle of poverty and improve educational outcomes. Some have been more successful than others, but none have solved the problem of intergenerational poverty or closed the achievement gap between poor kids and their middle-class counterparts.

What makes the Whatever It Takes plan different is that the group is aware of what has come before, and organizers think they know why other programs have failed.

Whatever It Takes’ broad base of team members has spent the past year looking hard at the long list of anti-poverty and educational nonprofits and programs that currently are running in Athens, evaluating what is working and what is not.

It’s a study that has involved dozens, if not more than 100, community leaders and community members.

(Report Comment)
ann Peters December 16, 2011 | 9:32 a.m.

It’s a study that has involved dozens, if not more than 100, community leaders and community members.

Staffers and volunteers also spent hours talking with parents and grandparents about what they see as obstacles to their children’s success in the classroom and in life.

The group’s community liaison, Terris Thomas, trained groups of parents and grandparents in the Alps Road Elementary attendance zone to interview their friends and neighbors to gather this information by talking to more than 350 different households in that area.

The plan that they will introduce this afternoon compiles all of that research into a more than 60-point plan to strengthen and expand the programs that are working now, start a few new initiatives to fill the needs that aren’t being addressed and to coordinate all of these efforts to ensure that services are effective and aren’t being duplicated.

The result should be an impermeable safety net for children.

Dr. Lewis Earnest, an emergency room doctor at St. Mary’s Hospital and chairman of the Whatever It Takes board of directors, compares the Whatever It Takes safety net to the gutter bumpers that bowling alleys use during children’s birthday parties.

“No matter how the child rolls the ball down the lane, it’s going to knock down some pins,” Earnest said. “That’s what we’re really trying to do — to take all the resources and institutions in Athens and make this seamless, longitudinal network of support so that every kid is successful.”

After organizers launch the plan in the Alps Road Elementary School attendance zone, they plan to expand similar programs into other attendance zones.

While the planning stage has been funded with at $500,000 federal grant, Whatever It Takes is working toward $200 million in federal grants that have been slated for comprehensive education improvement programs like Whatever It Takes.

“Part of this, the new (support) systems, are contingent on funding, so we’re seeking a number of different funding sources,” Johnson said. “But a lot of it, though, is the existing services and institutions working together, integrating what they’re doing and, in some cases, redirecting their own resources to achieve a more effective end. ... It’s not that money is spent on ineffective things, but sometimes they’re not being spent on the most effective thing.”

(Report Comment)
frank christian December 16, 2011 | 9:58 a.m.

Mr. Fogle is trolling again. Hope the daughter he is so (rightly) proud of, is "in" on the act.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 16, 2011 | 12:07 p.m.

"I had no idea condoms were in such short supply."

They're not. Condoms and other birth control are widely available and often free. For example, if you're too poor or too embarrassed to buy condoms at the grocery store or convenience store, you can get them for free from the health department. There's even a sign taped to the desk saying that they're free upon request.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 16, 2011 | 1:22 p.m.


I know.

(Report Comment)
mike mentor December 16, 2011 | 2:07 p.m.

It's not the schools it's the families!

The only program that I know about that has been successful in breaking the poverty cycle is The Harlem Children's Zone. I encourage anyone concerned to look at this program if you haven't already. They have had excellent success in an area where success is rare.

In the directors words, "directly taking on the problems of inadequate parenting and the cultural disadvantages of a ghetto home life. Fix the schools without fixing the families and the community, and children will fail."

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders December 16, 2011 | 5:11 p.m.

As always, until the real underlying issue is addressed, the solutions will ALWAYS fail to satisfy.

Families are suffering because their ability to afford anything is constantly being undermined by the continual production of Federal Reserve Notes. Until this evil private banking cartel is removed from the face of the Earth, there will be no reprieve for anyone, only a continuing loss of purchasing power.

For example, the "murder" of MF Global recently by Jon Corzine (ex-Goldman Sachs CEO/Senator/Governor) has destroyed the commodity futures market, robbing farmers of the money they need to purchase next Spring's seed.

If you think these kids are hungry now, well, sorry, but you ain't seen nuthin' yet. Meanwhile, I just googled for stories about MF Global on the Missourian, and found exactly zero.

What's the quote again about how it doesn't matter what the answers are if you're asking the wrong questions? If you really want to help these kids, then go to the Econ Dept. at MU and find the handful of people there who promote Austrian Economics (specifically Professor Peter Klein). Interview them every day if you have to, until you understand exactly what needs to be achieved to ensure a healthy, sustainable society. (Better yet, don't wait, go now to where the world's most relevant sources are published for anyone to read for free. I'd recommend Rothbard's book, "What Has Government Done to Our Money?" to start. )

Long story short, money is too important of a good to be left in the hands of criminals masquerading as public servants. (It's that ever vigilant thing!)

All this said, I pray that at least one person is curious enough to seek real answers instead of demanding more of the feel-good destruction that lead to this problem.

The answers are out there, if one only dare to remove the blinders of "conventional wisdom" and look.

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt December 16, 2011 | 5:22 p.m.

OK. I also agree with a (small) portion of that.

(Report Comment)

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