Educators review strategies for children in poverty

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Around 60 teachers and administrators from local schools came together Monday in Cape Girardeau to gain skills and strategies for successfully educating children living in poverty.

Nationally known educator Ruby K. Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," served as the backdrop for the two-day seminar, presented by former educator and national speaker Jim Littlejohn of Columbia, S.C.

According to Littlejohn, children form the largest group living in poverty. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that more than 12 million children were living in poverty in 1999 -- 13.5 percent were white, 33.1 percent were black and 30.3 percent were Hispanic.

"The first time children realize they're from poverty is when they come into schools," said Littlejohn. "That's when they begin to understand that they're not the same as the others."

Littlejohn spoke about the strong link between poverty and education, discussed the various factors that influence household income and the impact those factors have on learning.

Education cited as key

"If we truly want to make a difference with people in poverty, we must give them education," Littlejohn said.

With the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, schools are being held more accountable for the achievement of subgroups such as minorities, students with learning disabilities and students from low-income households.

Under NCLB, school districts in Missouri must have 100 percent of students scoring in the top two levels in math and communication arts on the annual Missouri Assessment Program tests by 2014.

With that in mind, many school districts are implementing a stronger push to improve scores among those sub-groups.

Teachers and administrators representing each of Cape Girardeau's 10 schools attended the event, as well as officials from the Charleston, Bloomfield, Gideon and Jackson school districts.

"More than anything, I've come away with the hope that our faculty will gain an understanding of what a lot of the kids in our district are going through," said Al McFerren, principal of Central High School. "When students are stereotyped as being poor, that gives them a lot of baggage to carry."

School districts use the number of students eligible for the free or reduced lunch program to measure poverty. In Cape Girardeau, nearly 40 percent of students participated in the program in 2002, more than the state average of 38 percent.

At individual schools within the district, such as Jefferson and Blanchard elementary schools, the percentage is much higher -- around 75 percent in 2002.

"As a district, we have to have a common, in-depth understanding of the issues surrounding poverty, race and their impact on achievement," said Mark Bowles, superintendent of Cape schools.

Bowles said the two-day seminar and other professional development will help the district accomplish that. "As long as it's affecting student learning, and in our district it's obvious by test scores that it is, we need to consider poverty a top priority," Bowles said.

According to Littlejohn, two things help move people out of poverty -- education and positive relationships, both of which can be found in public schools.

"We can't change where they come from, we can only control what we do with the time we have with them," Littlejohn said.

"There is no quick fix. We just hope to provide a spark to encourage students."

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