Analysis: No quick fix for growing student poverty

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Cook Tasha Deyo puts chocolate-chip muffins into the oven Wednesday morning, for the breakfast program at Voorheesville Elementary School. 

ALBANY COUNTY — As the number of students coming from poor families increases, the solutions to insure their success are complex and not entirely within the purview of the schools.

Horace Mann, an American politician and education reformer, who is best known for promoting universal public education, said, “Education, then, beyond all other divides of human origin, is a great equalizer of conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.”

The balance wheel in modern times, though, as many traditional stabilizing influences unravel, may be spinning out of control.

According to the most recent data from the New York State Education Department: 41 percent of rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District’s students come from poverty; in the suburban Guilderland Central School District, it is 18 percent; and in the suburban Voorheesville Central School District, it is 10 percent.

“School districts are facing three dilemmas in educating students,” said Michael Borges, the executive director of the ‎New York State Association of School Business Officials, which put out a recent report on one of the dilemmas: “Growing Student Poverty: Challenges for Achievement and State Funding.”

“There’s been an increase in economically disadvantaged students, there’s been an increase in English-language learners, and there’s been an increase in special-education students,” he said.

This is a problem that does not begin or end in the classroom.

It starts at home

First, the issue needs to be identified, but even that can be too difficult for people to admit.

“I have found, when I use the word ‘poverty’  — and I have publicly — to frame our budget discussion, last spring,” said Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell, “I have found that there is a pushback, because folks have pride; they don’t want to be characterized as impoverished. So, that term has emotional meaning.”

“We need to embrace what the challenges are — it’s a circumstance; it’s not an outcome,” Mundell said.

“If we work at the circumstances, in our various roles, then we can make a difference,” he said.

“If we identify what the problems are — rural poverty, adverse childhood experiences — then we can embrace that and do what we need to do to advocate for the resources necessary to provide the interventions that we need to provide, to ensure our kids have a fair and level playing field,” Mundell said.

Educational research shows that about two-thirds of a student’s achievements are shaped by out-of-school factors whereas only about one-third are shaped by in-school factors, says Jack Schneider, an assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross.

Remediation only through the schools will not produce equal outcomes across kids from different groups, says Schneider.

“Students from economically disadvantaged households are more likely than their more affluent peers to face a variety of challenges that may negatively impact their school performance,” F. Chris Curran, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County writes in an email to The Enterprise. “For example, limited financial resources can make it difficult to access high quality early childhood education, to invest in enrichment activities, or to afford housing in safer and more supportive communities.”

According to the New York State Education Department: “Economically disadvantaged students are those who participate in, or whose family participates in, economic assistance programs, such as the free or reduced-price lunch programs, Social Security Insurance, Food Stamps, Foster Care, Refugee Assistance, Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), Home Energy Assistance Program, Safety Net Assistance, Bureau of Indian Affairs, or Family Assistance: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.”

“The result is that children from economically disadvantaged households are more likely to be exposed to environmental stressors like crime, violence, or contaminants such as lead,” Curran write. “At the same time, they are less likely to have access to the community and household supports that could mitigate the impacts of such exposure. For example, they are more likely to live in a household with a single parent who may be working multiple jobs. They are less likely to have access to supportive community structures such as high quality early childhood education.”  

The parents of economically disadvantaged students tend to, on average, have lower education levels themselves, according to Curran. As a result, they are less equipped to provide the academic guidance that parents of more advantaged students can.

“We are certainly keenly aware of the challenges that students who are economically disadvantaged bring with them when they come to school,” Marie Wiles, superintendent of the Guilderland Central School District, said this week.

“We see kids entering who struggle with letters, colors, and sounds,” Berne-Knox-Westerlo Superintendent Timothy Mundell told The Enterprise earlier this year. “And this usually ties back to their economic situation.”

A hot meal, a helping hand, and a little understanding

“One of the things that I always come back to around low-income kids in school is the role of social workers and school counselors,” said Anne Day Leong, Ph.D, MSW, a researcher who has studied childhood poverty for over 10 years.

Counselors and social workers are able to help to connect families to services, said Leong.

“We spend a lot of our resources making sure we have the right people here in our buildings: Social workers and school counselors, whose job is to attend to the non-academic side of students’ lives, so that they can be more successful in the classroom,” said Wiles. This point was also made by Brian Hunt, superintendent of the Voorheesville Central School District.

Leong uses an example from Borges’s group’s recent report to illustrate her point. “The western Region [of New York] is a perfect example, because the services are there, but it looks to me that kids aren’t taking advantage of it,” she said.

The Western Region shows comparable rates of poverty to some of the regions around it, but lower rates of enrollment in free and reduced-price lunches, Leong said.

A school social worker, she said, would alert students and their families that there is a program available and it looks like they are not taking advantage of the program. That program could free up some money at home for a family that is struggling financially, she said.

“If your family is concerned where the next meal is coming from, or ‘will we have a roof over our head?’ homework becomes less important — because you’re surviving. So, if we can ease that burden a little bit for those families — and I think we’re helping with that process — the children will hopefully do better in school because of that,” Hunt said.

“We didn’t have a breakfast program at the elementary school, and we initiated it for students who are living in poverty to have free, or reduced [price], meals,” said Hunt.

Wiles said there are programs in place in Guilderland that help economically disadvantaged students, like free and reduced-price lunch as well as breakfast. There is also a backpack program, where every weekend some students are given a backpack full of food to bring home, so that their families have enough to eat over the weekend. Hunt pointed out that there is a similar backpack program for Voorheesville students. And, BKW, too, has such a program; each of them is run through the Northeast Regional Food Bank, with local support.

Mundell told The Enterprise in January that a large increase in student participation in the school’s free and reduced-price lunch program was a clear sign of economic distress in the district’s families. From 2005 to 2008, according to Mundell, 18 percent of BKW students participated in the program; now it is over 40 percent.

Mundell is also dealing with the difficulty of obtaining social services for those who live in rural poverty.  

“Transportation is limited and getting people connected to the appropriate kinds of support they need is difficult,” Mundell said. “Rural and urban poverty is different in this sense … We’re so sparsely populated and distance becomes an impediment to connecting people with services.”

In September 2016, to connect students and families to services, BKW began a program with the Albany County Office of Childhood and Family Services. Mundell said, the county is providing a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to the secondary school, who is providing mental-health services to students as well as their families, and acts as an extension of the social-worker process.

“It’s been a very positive, added service to our program offering,” Mundell said.

Mundell says the school district also works with Saint Catherine’s Center for Children, based in Albany, which provides services for about 1,000 children and 500 families.

“In our district, we have a program called BKW Connections,” he said. The program offers after-school support for students. “But embedded in that are the services that come with the Saint Catherine’s organization,” Mundell said. “Which are social-work services.”

“Over time,” said Mundell, “you create relationships and maintain discretion — and, that is important part of this, maintaining discretion — to build trust.

Ashley Warren, a social worker at BKW, said that she is also creating a needs-based survey that will be going out to middle-school students before the holiday break. “It’s all about meeting them where they’re at,” she said.

“They are going to express the things they personally need, and depending on those outcomes, we are going to create programs — counseling services around that,” Warren said

Warren said she will also get input from teachers to see if they have the same perspective, and where those perspectives differ. Mundell says the teachers receive training and workshops to help them identify students’ needs.

Wiles says that one of the things Guilderland has done is to expand the awareness among faculty and staff who work with disadvantaged students. 

“To bring the challenges to life for our administrative team about two summers ago, we had our administrative team participate in a poverty simulation,” she said

In 2015, Guilderland administrators participated in the exercise, where every 15 minutes equaled a week. The goal was to get through the month. A facilitator would hand out cards describing various problems, like a car had broken down, or a boy broke his arm.

Part of the value of the exercise is to increase sensitivity, Wiles said at the time. She said of educators, “We think, if parents valued school more, it would be great; they should come to open houses and conferences, and help with homework.

“We learned how hard it is to get rent for the house, to feed the family, to get to a job — you don’t have hours in the day to come to an open house or to log on to track the progress of your student,” said Wiles.

In the classroom

Now, for Mundell, helping kids in classroom starts before kindergarten.

“This summer, we took an approach — we’ve noticed in year’s past, that students coming into kindergarten, maybe didn’t have the skills to form letter sounds, or blended letter sounds, and didn’t have some fundamental letter-recognition skills. Those are fundamental pieces to learning how to read — and they lacked vocabulary,” he said.

Mundell said that research has shown that students who lack vocabulary or who are not reading at grade level by the third grade, are going to struggle in high school.

To achieve this goal, Mundell said that this past summer there was a kindergarten-orientation session. It was based upon the screening the district did for incoming students, who may have had some gaps in their learning, he said.

The students were brought in for three hours a day, over a two-week period, to work with a kindergarten teacher to prepare them better for school. “That was a big help,” Mundell said.

At Voorheesville, Hunt said, “One thing we do is offer remedial support, because of deficiencies they may have developed in the past — maybe in part, because they’ve been impoverished.”

“We do monitor progress — that’s a big part of it; you have to know how your students are doing,” Hunt said. “To use math as an example, we use STAR math.”

STAR assessments, which formerly was an acronym for Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading, “are short tests that provide teachers with learning data. STAR tests are computer adaptive, which means they adjust to each answer your child provides. This helps teachers get the best data,” according to Renaissance, the makers of the tests.

Wiles highlights Guilderland’s Focus Program, which places students in smaller classes, where they receive more in-depth teacher and administrative support.

Also, the Sources of Strength program is already in Guilderland High School, and has recently expanded into the middle school, Wiles said. “It’s a program to help youngsters understand who is out there to support them, when they are experiencing help or have a need … and understanding where their sources of strength are in the community.”

Mundell in January highlighted the gains made by BKW students who were instructed in smaller groups and received extra attention: A decrease of 17 percent was seen in the number of students reading below grade level. The decrease was preceded by the hiring of five teaching assistants to help students in math and English.

But there are difficulties in the rural BKW district that Guilderland and Voorheesville don’t face. In January, Mundell told The Enterprise that he had attended a meeting and heard “many stories of rural poverty and families struggling to make ends meet,” which were reflected in student performance. There are 141 students receiving academic intervention services in the district, a number that should be closer to 85, Mundell said.

Mundell told The Enterprise this week that there are one-on-one and small-group services available to students, and that new testing allows the district to better track students progress to be able to better help them.

Coming back to his point that, to best help students in the classroom, instruction has to start early. Mundell told said that he is working with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, exploring if it is possible to use some of the district’s federal funding to create a full-day pre-kindergarten program as well as an after-school program to support students. 

He said the added length of the school day would provide extra learning and socialization opportunities for students.

He also points out that it would help parents.

“It’s a support to parents who are out there working, who would otherwise have child-care issues,” Mundell said.

Mundell also points out a major issue for schools — federal tax reform.

“I don’t think people understand what would happen if we eliminate state and local tax deductions,” he said. “It could have a disastrous effect on the state’s ability to fund public education.”

Graduation rates

The graduation rates of students determined to be economically disadvantaged are lower than the average graduation rate, according to data from the State Education Department.

At Guilderland, 78 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated from high school in 2016; overall, 93 percent graduated. At Berne-Knox-Westerlo, 76 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated in 2016, and 86 percent overall. And at Voorheesville, 83 percent of economically disadvantaged students graduated, and 95 percent overall, in 2016.  

Getting the graduation rate to 100 is an expensive and nearly-impossible goal.

“Because these students have issues that occur outside of school, some of these things have to be addressed in a more, broader societal remedy,” said Borges. “Some things can be addressed in the school district, but that requires more resources because these students require additional support, to address their particular needs.”

One of the key things to success in school, regardless of socio-economic background, is parental involvement, Borges said.

Schneider says there are three major traits associated with education that middle- and upper-income families tend to exert on their children: Norms that they set throughout a child’s life; concrete supports to the child; and cultivating particular types of practices and behaviors.

“If you were to treat all students equally, then lower-income kids would be at a huge disadvantage,” Schneider said.

He said that they don’t have the same kind of mindset, just in general, but points out that this is not every single child. He says, children from poor families don’t have the same kinds of goals, or the same kind of preparation from ages 0 to 5, or the same kind of parental support from ages 5 to 18.

And so, if you were to treat all kids equally, given the fact that not all kids have equal, out-of-school experiences, you would really have disparate kinds of outcomes, Schneider said.

So, the question is: How much more needs to be done to produce equal outcomes?

The answer, it turns out, all seem to be lacking in today’s world: Patience, political will, and a lot more money.

“If you actually wanted equal results, you would have to create a whole slew of social programs that begin at the cradle, and follow the students right through college graduation — but that would be hugely expensive,” Schneider said.

“So, if you say, ‘Let’s really invest in this cradle-to-college diploma idea.’ If you really did this effectively,” Scheider says that you wouldn’t need to do this for every generation.

You could intervene in one generation really thoughtfully and break the cycle, he says. “What you are committed to is a 22-year-long research project.”

But political cycles move much more rapidly than school-improvement cycles do.

We know that people are going to be coming up for election in two years, and four years from now, he says.

“To what extent will we maintain focus on this long-term goal? Because political winds will inevitably shift, and then to what extent will we have the patience to say, ‘No, there are no results yet. This is not going to produce results for a generation and we’re just going to have to take it on faith.’ No, we are not going to see immediate, observable changes the way we would if we spent more on trash collection,” said Schneider. 

It is a major practical and political challenge that you really need to be working in multiple domains, across multiple spheres, simultaneously, he says; there’s a lot of coordination that needs to happen, and we have a pretty decentralized system, which is far from streamlined.

“Multiple fronts have to be worked on, simultaneously, in order to build effective schools. And, unfortunately, the political rhetoric is totally misaligned with that [goal],” he says.

The rhetoric, Schneider says, is: “Our schools are broken and there are some common-sense solutions out there that we just need to drop down, as technical fixes.

“That all we need to do is bust the teachers’ unions, or all we need to do is promote choice through charter schools or voucher programs, that all we need to do is hold schools accountable for results,” he says.

But, he goes on, that kind of simplistic thinking is not only wrong, it actually is counterproductive.

“It is really hard to work on multiple fronts, and to do so with sustained energy across years. And there are schools that are doing it, but often, their work is disrupted by these school-reform efforts that are proudly disruptive.”

He says that reformers have borrowed the language of Silicon Valley to say: “This is an industry that needs disruption.”

Schneider says reformers will draw simplistic analogies between schools and the video business: “Just like Netflix put Blockbuster out of business, virtual schools, or charter schools, or voucher programs will radically transform the model of education.”

“That’s just really not helpful, and really compounds the political challenge of bringing stakeholders onto the same page and getting them to think about education as a public good,” he said.

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