You say potato: Losing track of low income/economically disadvantaged students

WBUR’s Max Larkin’s piece on the way Massachusetts has changed counting children living in poverty, How Massachusetts Lost Count of Its Poor Students, was published yesterday. While Massachusetts educators are paying attention, this is a topic that deserves much broader discussion as the unintended consequences are substantial.

In 2015, the Commonwealth began recalculating the number of students living in poverty based upon a new metric which included enrollment in programs like SNAP. Using this new way of counting and classifying the needs of students meant the use a new label, “economically disadvantaged”, replacing the term “low income”. However, more than a change in labeling data collection resulted.

In Lowell prior to the new measures, the average (and I stress the use of the word AVERAGE) poverty rate district-wide was in the 75.1% (2013-14 DESE Select Population data). In the particular school in which I taught, that rate was closer to 85% (84.9%). Using the new means of measurement, in 2014-15, Lowell’s District calculation of students in poverty, now referenced as “economically disadvantaged” was reduced to 49%. So according to the new measure, over the summer break about one-third of Lowell Public School’s students disappeared from the count of children who lived in poverty.

Why does this matter? When we look at student growth and achievement, there are factors within the school and classroom over which educators have control but there are also factors which influence student growth over which educators have little to no control. One of those factors is the impact of living in poverty. This is a huge reason school districts make every attempt to provide students who are low income or economically disadvantaged with additional services. Such services range from wrap-around services for health and housing security to additional educational opportunities like books for home enjoyment and field trips.

As an educator, it did not make sense to me that over the summer break one-third of our students were suddenly no longer in need of such extra supports. Certainly no one could imagine that over the summer months about a third of Lowell’s students for whom poverty was a factor had suddenly become financially stable.

Poverty levels are often a consideration for needs-based grants. Here’s an example: In Lowell, the United Teachers of Lowell applied for participation in the FirstBook Books on Wheels free book distribution program in 2015. To qualify, the District needs-based percentage had to be 70%. Under the new calculation using CEP, Lowell’s 49.1% economically disadvantaged calculation would have disqualified our students and their families from the benefits this wonderful program: books to add to a home library. Luckily our Title I office had actual data which did allow us to qualify for the program.

Which makes me wonder: what other needs-based programs are our children living in poverty missing because a district or school no longer qualifies based upon economically disadvantaged data collected by Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education? Are our children who are living in poverty missing the additional services needed to help them be as successful as their more affluent peers based upon a falsely “improved” low income number?

When the Commonwealth falsely represents students living in poverty based on a flawed new metric, the consequences have a significant and real impact on our most vulnerable students.

It’s the poverty stupid

Remember when then-candidate Clinton – Bill, not Hillary – had a sign probably written by James Carville that read “It’s The Economy, Stupid”?

Well, to paraphrase in this age of educators-can-do-nothing-right, I’d like to say that as anyone who scratches below the surface of education knows, it’s the poverty, stupid.

The Alternet recently published an article summarizing some recent research concerning the effects of poverty on students. Read it for yourself here. The conclusion indicates that poor school performance is not about poor teacher performance. It is about hunger and trauma and the social ills that come from worrying whether or not your family will have a place to live when you arrive home or how hungry you will be because there is not enough money to buy food. Want to know more? Get your hands on Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty.

Educators know that we are not the only factor in a child’s academic “success”, especially when that success is defined by those who would quantify learning by the correct number of answer bubbles on a high-stakes test.

So many factors fall beyond an educator’s control and affect our students: medical care, hunger, lack of housing, parents who must work multiple jobs and long hours, and social factors such as the ones mentioned in articles.

This week my classroom has been battling the flu. Teaching children basic cleanliness routines, to use soap and water in fact, is not that unusual. Telling a parent that a child with a temp over 102 degrees that a trip to the doctor (or more likely the hospital emergency room) was in order – not a dose of Tylenol – is not that unusual.

Poverty and trauma affect children at their core. Kids who are hungry, or worried about where they will get their next meal; kids who don’t have a safe, clean environment in which to stay outside of school – those kids are not focused on whether or not Choice A or Choice C is the best answer to a test item.

Unless we as a society are willing to tackle the ugly and difficult issue of economic equality, I fear the stupidity will continue. It’s not just the teacher, it’s the poverty.

Faces of poverty and trauma

This time of year – this time of year when commercial excess is encouraged and expected. A time when non-stop advertisement reminds us that in order for it to truly be the “most wonderful time” of the year, we need to open those wallets and warm up the charge cards. This time of year is filled with sadness and lost hope.

It is a time of year that is filled with resentment and sometimes anger for some of my students. It is a time when life is just not fair.

I can generally gauge the economy by the numbers of children in my classroom who seem hungry. This year, there’s not much guesswork or hypothesis involved. They don’t just seem hungry, they clearly are hungry.

While these students are generally beneath the radar – free and reduced lunch status is not commonly known among teaching staff – there is no hot list of who pays for lunch and who doesn’t. This year, on several occasions, I have been struck by the matter-of-fact, almost accepting manner of parents who have run out of money and who are falling through the social safety net. And who, in desperation, approach me – the teacher of their child – to see if I have any resources they can tap in to.

If this year is any indication, the economy is really bad.

For these children living in poverty, there is no “most wonderful time of the year”. There is only the reality that there will be nothing under the tree – in fact, there won’t be a tree.

In the last week, I have had children acting out and then melting in to tears because they are hungry (I ask now, no sense in hinting around). For several children, whenever a classmate is absent, we tuck the extra bagel, or cereal or graham cracker package into their backpacks.

My mother knits mittens for my students – I have given out every pair, about 10 so far this year. One child came to school so cold he needed to keep his winter coat on (a gift from a generous school benefactor) for more than an hour to ward of the shivers.

These are not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps families that some disparage. They were the working poor, have seen their jobs disappear, and now watch helplessly as their family begins a descent through the cracks in our safety net.

And the children? These are children for whom the “most wonderful time of the year” is a cruel joke.

Homeless children and faces of poverty

In case you missed it, here is a link to Scott Pelley’s outstanding and heartbreaking story about the effects of homelessness on our children. As a teacher in a high poverty urban public school, I know what he is reporting is true. At least two of my students began the year in hotels; in previous years one of my students lived in the U Haul carrying all their worldly possessions after they were evicted. Some children have infrequently shared that they did not have electricity as the service had been shut off. Still others come to school and scuffle for food, for breakfast items that were not consumed by their peers. Clearly they do not have enough to eat.

The most jaw-dropping piece of information Mr. Pelley shared was that the United States – the land of plenty – considers a family to be living below the poverty level if they are a family of four with $22,000 per year. Who can do that; who can do that with 4 people?

For me, this fact points to the fallacy of statistical information as applied by our government. If the poverty level is defined as 4 people living on $22,000 each year; there are many more families in actual poverty than our government track with this skewed classification. $22,000 is not a living income for a single person – at least here in the Northeast – that amount applied to 4 is beyond the pale.

Recently I read an article stating that the income gap between rich and poor is the widest it has been in 80 years. The “recovery” has not trickled down to those living on the margins. Social services are facing cuts in budgets and services that will only make this worse.

I do not hold out much hope for our government to provide a safety net for children of poverty. These children sadly seem to know better than I, that the situation is not hopeful. That, in this land of plenty, they are faceless and nameless, and sadly, powerless.

More faces, more poverty

First of all, I want to be clear that I understand poverty crosses over into many, many lives.  I live in an affluent town. A town with a food pantry that is routinely emptied.  People in this town are foreclosed upon, bankrupt, lose homes to tax liens.

But what I know is the environment in which I work. Last week we had to serve lunch in the classroom because the cafe-gym-atorium was being used for a play.  I had 22 students in attendance that day. Twenty-one qualified for free lunch.  One child qualified for reduced lunch. Zero pay full cost. What’s the poverty percentage for that 21 of 22? Ninety-five percent. If you’ve never seen the income requirements for free and reduced lunch click here.

Poverty and the trauma that results in families is a complicated thing. I am not an expert, I am an observer. And from what I observe some very vulnerable beings, 9 year olds, thrive – or try to thrive – under some very appalling conditions.

Ruby Payne has written an exemplary book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. I read it over and over to try to get a handle on the cultural differences, the hidden rules of poverty, of the middle-class, of wealthy people. Each time I do, I uncover something more to think about, some way I can be more effective, more understanding of the challenges facing my students – 95 percent of whom are well below the poverty level.

It is a book I recommend to educational colleagues. Understanding is power.