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Poverty not a character flaw, only lack of resources

Oct. 11, 2012 @ 12:20 AM

Cabell County Schools received news it would receive a substantial increase in Title I funding. We were thrilled but wondered why we would receive increased federal funding when the majority of counties had received reductions? When questioned, the West Virginia Department of Education thought a mistake likely was made. They said they would review the budget figures and get back with us.

But, it was true. Cabell County Schools indeed was due the increased funding. Why? Funding for Title I is based on poverty statistics and the 2010 Census revealed an increase in the percentage of families with children ages 5 to 17 living in poverty in the county. And, not just a small increase. The rate had changed from 22.8 percent to 32.9 percent ranking Cabell County 5th in the percentage of West Virginia families with school-age children living in poverty. Only McDowell, Calhoun, Clay and Webster counties have higher percentages.

Understandably, most people in Cabell County have a difficult time believing this statistic is correct. They remember studies that grouped Cabell with surrounding Tri-State counties, aggregating their numbers with ours for a statistical ranking. (Remember the study that brought Jamie Oliver to town?) But, I am afraid the figures from the U.S. Census Bureau website apply strictly to Cabell County and confirm in black and white what we hoped was not true. (http://www.census.gov/did/www/saipe/index.html)

Why is this important? Poverty is linked to various negative outcomes for individuals and communities. While many children from financially impoverished homes thankfully have other types of resources that help them develop their potential, financial poverty takes a toll on the majority of children it touches. It is important to state that poverty is not a character flaw, but plain and simple, a lack of resources. Under-resourced parents love their children the same as parents with more means. However, in addition to financial woes, they often lack time to invest in the challenging task of parenting.

Even accounting for other significant variables such as family structure and the educational level of parents, Robert Marzano found children of poverty are less than half as likely to do well in school. They are more likely to fall behind, be retained, labeled as a behavior problem, have lower test scores, be absent or truant, and drop out of school.

While this is reason for concern, there is also reason for optimism as a community about our ability to intervene to prevent children from suffering the long-term consequences of poverty. Researcher Dr. Tammy Pawloski named eight strategies schools and communities can use to make a difference. While I can't review the entire list here, I'd like to mention the suggestion at the top of her list. It's not "rocket science" but it is a game changer.

Relationships! Providing children with a relationship with a caring adult can serve as a safety net. Whether a teacher, grandma, or neighbor, the adult can help arm students against the impact of poverty by providing encouragement and teaching or modeling soft skills (communication, collaboration, emotional control, etc.). Students can become resilient learners who internalize their future is not fixed. With relationships in place, schools can provide rigorous and relevant instruction, holding high standards that will allow students to become successful after graduating.

The school system cannot successfully tackle this issue alone. Community Coalitions like United Way's Education Matters (tackling the dropout rate) and Success by Six, (distributing information to new parents of the importance of the early years) as well as Create Huntington (empowering community change) and WE (enhancing educational opportunities for young people) are working to overcome poverty-related obstacles. Judges Ferrell and Ferguson use their courts to fight truancy. Organizations like Big Brothers/ Big Sisters and Goodwill along with the faith community provide adult mentors to at-risk students. How fortunate the school system and community are to have so many "dedicated to the success of every student!"

To assure we have an educated citizenry and vibrant communities, we must deliberately act to assure every child has access to the American Dream through education. Whether you join a coalition or act as a friend to a child in need, I urge you to give what time you can to "push back" against the forces of poverty. You'll be glad you did!

One sure way to become involved is through Chat 'n Chews held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Thursday in the lobby of the Frederick Building, 940 4th Ave. Or, participate in discussion through the Create Huntington website www.createhuntington.com or through the Create Huntington Facebook page.

Gerry Sawrey is assistant superintendent of school improvement for Cabell County Schools.