Outgoing superintendent Chris Belcher said in a Q and A this week that improving the achievement gap in schools had been a disappointment. Then he said: Columbia is a reflection of the nation.
It was a blunt assessment by an educator who focused on that singularly difficult problem more than any I can recall in recent years. The Missourian has written about attempts — some successful — to combat the problem, which extends well beyond the schoolhouse doors.
The biggest barrier to closing the gap isn’t race or gender or geography. It’s poverty.
Or, as the Missourian Readers Board put it this week, the divide between the haves and the have-nots is growing wider and with little evidence that things are changing.
Almost the entire 90 minutes of the board meeting was given over to community, not journalism, matters. The group brought up tensions between two visions of bucolic small town and bustling big city. They talked about the boom of student housing and the prevalence of boutique shops around downtown. They discussed economic diversity and traffic problems and affordable housing. One member worried about our dependence on the student loan system. Another said she sees race played out in similar ways in a Southern city she lived in but without the honest, public conversation here.
But I was most struck by how often the board members (seven attended Tuesday’s meeting) returned to poverty as one of the core issues getting in the way of Columbia’s progress: More kids in poverty based on free and reduced lunch rates. Fewer people in the “haves” category who understand what it means to be poor. More adults working multiple jobs and still facing the prospect of not having enough to eat.
Consider: By 2012, public school children living in poverty in Columbia had risen by 10 percent since 2003. About 40 percent of public school kids qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.
At one point I brought up crime in town. It had been more than an hour into the conversation, and the only mention had been a sense that some people perceive downtown as a high crime area when once it was thought safe. (I was happy to hear them also refer to a Missourian article last fall showing crime rates in most categories have gone down.)
But the group didn’t bite on the crime apple I dangled. They turned things back to those haves and have-nots. Several nodded as one described crime as a symptom of poverty (though not the only one).
They even brought up a category of poor I think we often dismiss: the college poor. While some students can afford luxury apartments and studies by the poolside, others are working full time and more. And, too often, they’re graduating with a mountain of debt and few prospects for jobs.
What does this all mean for the Missourian’s journalism? One board member wanted to be able to see the face of poverty beyond facts and figures. Another wanted to know about the increasing strain on the support network in town, and I assume she meant from government and civic areas.
In other words, I took the conversation to mean that these people wanted their newspaper to shine a light on the problem — one that hasn’t gone away in the 50 years since Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
I believe that has been Chris Belcher’s greatest accomplishment in attacking the achievement gap problem. He’s right that the needle hasn’t moved much in some ways. But he hasn’t let the conversation die. He continued to raise it at civic gatherings and school board meetings throughout his four-plus years as superintendent. There is movement, even if it’s not always seen.
I’m sure Belcher will continue to beat the drum until his retirement this summer. After that, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to make sure the beat isn’t silenced.