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Poverty rising in city schools
More than half of Decatur’s students eligible for reduced lunches

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

Poverty is the enemy of education, and its hold on Decatur children is tightening.

In 1997, 34 percent of students who enrolled in Decatur City Schools were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. In the recently completed 2006-07 school year, 51 percent were eligible.

Poverty is defined by income, but the challenges confronted by a child living in poverty are beyond the scope of a calculator.

A household of four meets the federal definition of poverty if its annual income is $20,650 or below. A student is eligible for the free-lunch program if the household income is 130 percent of that amount, or $26,845. Reduced price lunch eligibility is calculated at 185 percent of the poverty level, or $38,203 for a family of four.

Those are the numbers. The reality facing the child — and those who want to help him — is far more complex.

Dante’s story

Bruce Jones, director of Decatur Youth Services, introduces Dante. That’s not his real name, but he’s a real child. Jones chooses him because his plight is typical of those in Decatur who live in poverty.

Dante is in middle school. He lives with his mother, who works a full-time job during the day and a part-time job in the evenings. Dante’s father is absent, a source of friction between Dante and his mother.

Guilt stains the relationship between mother and son. She feels guilt over his father’s absence. She feels guilt that she is at work when he leaves for school and when he returns. She feels guilt that the clothes he wears are shabby. She handles that guilt by “being more a friend than a mom” to Dante. Discipline is lax and, because of her work schedule, supervision is almost nonexistent.

Dante’s mother is scared of her son’s school. She dropped out of school, and she feels embarrassed and inadequate dealing with his teachers and his classmates’ parents. On those few occasions when she could attend school functions or meet with his teachers, she tries to avoid it.

Dante resents his mother. She is at fault for his father’s absence, he is convinced. She is never home. She tries to help him with homework, but she’s no good at it. She has never met his teachers.

He hates going to school because his homework is never done. With no parents to supervise, he spends his after-school hours hanging out with people who accept him, and who scoff at textbooks. People at school look down at him because of his clothes. Despite his intelligence, his grades are dropping. He has tried drugs, and they were a pleasant escape from his problems.

“He’s starting to act out at school,” Jones said. “I think he’s embarrassed that he’s not keeping up academically. He’d rather be disciplined for being the class clown than for being dumb.”

Struggles common

That Dante’s struggles are common is evident from test scores.

Fifty-seven percent of the sixth-graders in Decatur City Schools last year were impoverished. On average, they scored in the 30th percentile nationally on the reading portion of the Stanford Achievement Test. Their more affluent classmates scored in the 63rd percentile.

“It only takes one.”

Jones’ frustration is evident when he says it. The baggage an impoverished student carries creates a tragic cycle, a cycle that is broken for generations if one student escapes it.

Speaking of Dante, Jones says, “I see him turning into his father. If something doesn’t change soon, he’ll be the absent father. He’ll be in and out of jail.”

And thus will be born a new generation with the same hurdles as this one, a perpetuation of the poverty cycle in Decatur.

That’s the curse, but also the opportunity. Pull one child out of the cycle, and you’ve rescued his children and grandchildren.

“We’ve got to do better at finding the ones who we can help,” Jones said. “So many have the ability to escape, but we have to find them and reach out to them.”

Stories of hope

Within the grim statistics are plenty of stories that give hope, stresses West Decatur Elementary Principal Datie Priest. Parents are essential to their children’s academic success, but poverty does not have to be a bar to their participation.

She has reason to know. Ninety percent of her students live in poverty. Her fifth-graders last year scored in the 26th percentile in reading on the Stanford test.

“It may not look the same as in another building, but we have parental involvement,” Priest said. “If you drove by yesterday at our fall festival, parents were everywhere. Drive by any morning between 7:30 and 8; parents are double-parked out front because they are walking their children in. My parents have to work so they’re not as available during the day, but their participation manifests itself in other ways.”

As was the case with Dante’s mother, Priest said many of her parents had negative experiences with schools when they were children.

“I think in this situation we’re more obligated to reach out to them as opposed to a more affluent school, where parents are doing the reaching out,” Priest said. “We need to communicate to the parents that our goal is to make the student successful, but that can’t be done without a partnership.”

Somerville Road Elementary provides a glimmer of hope in a school district whose test scores feel the negative impact of escalating poverty.

In the 2004-05 school year, Somerville third-graders averaged in the 22nd percentile in reading.

Two years later, as fifth-graders, their reading scores had jumped to the 39th percentile. That’s 17 percentile points in two years, more than triple the systemwide increase for the class.

Even within the subgroup of students who are in poverty, Somerville Road scores climbed 14 points, from the 22nd percentile to the 36th.

Success no fluke

It was not a fluke, and it did not come easy.

Principal Dee Dee Jones, who started at Somerville in July 2006, said she believes the most dramatic impact on test scores came from a morning program started last school year. Most Somerville students arrive at school at about 7 a.m. for breakfast — dropped off by parents who have to get to work — and the program was every morning from 7:15 through 7:35.

“We work with the students in reading and math. We see where the weaknesses are (from midyear testing data) and we work with them as a group on particular skills,” Jones said.

Even before students took the Stanford test last year, Jones and her faculty had a feeling it was working.

“The teachers would be surprised they could answer a question in class, and the student would say, ‘Oh, we learned that this morning.’ They were making connections and the teachers could tell the difference.”

Several of the morning programs focused on writing — Jones called it a “writing camp” — and she is convinced the focus was the main reason fifth-grade writing scores rose 10 percentile points.

Jones also offered incentives for students who demonstrated academic progress, including field trips. The field trips were a tremendous success, Jones said, not only because of the incentive they provided but because of the exposure they offered.

“We took them to the new ‘Charlotte’s Web’, and some of them had never been to a movie,” Jones said. Another field trip was to an amusement park in Chattanooga.

“Many of them had never been to Chattanooga, had never been to an amusement park,” Jones said. “Experiences like that, for some of them, are very few.”

Breadth of experience is an essential component in the learning process, Jones explained, and it is lacking for many who live in poverty.

“A skillful reader makes connections to the world, to personal experiences. Some of them just don’t have the depth of experience to do that,” Jones said. “What they have to draw from is very limited.”

Programs for parents

Jones is mindful not only of Dante, but of his mother. Through a variety of programs, the school has encouraged parental participation at Somerville Road. Last year the school’s parent-teacher association, perpetually in the red, raised enough money to spend $2,100 improving the playground.

In part through the Family Assistance through Community Ties Project, Somerville was able to help parents directly. The program assisted families with specific needs that come with poverty.

That assistance, Jones believes, had a direct and positive impact on her students’ academic success.

“If you’re worried about Mom losing her job, or whether you have clean clothes, or whether the electricity is going to be turned off, it’s major,” Jones said. “It affects your ability to learn. They bring it to school and they worry about it and they can’t focus.”

Jones said she’s proud of her school’s improvement, but she’s convinced it can do better.

“I’m telling the teachers we have to do the same thing this year, and work even harder at it,” Jones said. “They are all for it. They’ve seen the results.”

Area poverty rates

The percentage of students in area school systems who were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs in the 2006-07 school year:

  • Athens City: 41 percent.

  • Decatur City: 51 percent.

  • Hartselle City: 25 percent.

  • Lawrence County: 52 percent.

  • Limestone County: 38 percent.

  • Morgan County: 43 percent.

    Source: Alabama Department of Education

    High-poverty schools

    Six elementary schools in Decatur have poverty rates that exceed 50 percent. The schools, their poverty rates, and their average fifth-grade score on the reading portion of the Stanford Achievement Test are below. The test scores, from the 2006-07 school year, are expressed as a percentile of scores nationwide.

    Austinville

    Poverty rate: 88 percent.

    Reading: 23rd percentile.

    Banks-Caddell

    Poverty rate: 87 percent.

    Reading: 38th percentile.

    Frances Nungester

    Poverty rate: 85 percent.

    Reading: 37th percentile.

    Somerville Road

    Poverty rate: 89 percent.

    Reading: 39th percentile.

    West Decatur

    Poverty rate: 90 percent.

    Reading: 26th percentile.

    Woodmeade

    Poverty rate: 68 percent.

    Reading: 36th percentile.

    Eric Fleischauer

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