Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Free Public Schools Can Help Break the Shackles of Poverty

When I first began my teaching career it was in an inner city school where extreme poverty permeated nearly every child’s life. It hung in the air outside the chain-link fence surrounding the school like an oppressive fog, waiting to engulf my students as soon as the school day ended. Knowing what they were headed toward at the end of the day was by far the hardest part of my job.

For some of us, it’s hard to imagine what life is like for a child who steps outside that fence to face poverty. We take so much for granted – from turning on the lights to opening a refrigerator to grab a snack to having a safe place to sleep at night: We don’t even think about having to live without these simple luxuries. But kids waking up in poverty may not know when they will have their next meal.

In Florida we obsessively measure and grade our public schools and students.  We test beyond educational sanity to obtain those scores. We’ve spent billions on the testing industry with little to show for that investment other than over-tested kids and angry parents. We’ve graded schools for more than 15 years now, but in the larger picture, have seen little improvement in learning. As educators predicted, what we have seen is schools located in some ZIP codes consistently are rated as A and B; and schools in other ZIP codes are consistently rated D and F.

Clearly the grades reflect the income levels of the families they serve. Florida’s politicians blame public schools, teachers and principals: not enough rigor in curriculum and low expectations for kids in these so called “failing” schools. But those political leaders have never examined the effect of poverty on student learning or understood that kids living in distressed communities don’t do as well on standardized tests as their peers who are more economically stable.

The fact is, poverty matters.

My dream for the past 30 years has been that our schools would help give our students what they needed to rise out of poverty. For years, the Florida Education Association (FEA) has supported legislation to focus funding on support for the concept commonly referred to as wraparound services for schools. Finally, someone has recognized the success of those programs.

One shining example of the wraparound concept’s success is at Evans High School in Orlando. Evans was an “F” school. It serves an economically distressed community. Today, Evans provides health care, nutritional support, mental health counseling, tutoring and enrichment for students and community members during extended hours. They’ve hired a strong and resourceful principal who supports students and teachers. Because of such community effort, kids and their families are healthier, the community is stronger and students are learning.

Recently, the city of Tallahassee commissioned a study to determine what would help build the economic base of the impoverished south side of town. The takeaway: Support the community by offering services through the neighborhood public school, not only to the students but to the entire community. That’s what Evans High School does.

Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll supports the program, and encourages other communities to create community schools. He was quoted by the News Service of Florida: “It leaves the child in a place where they really only have one thing to do, and that’s flourish in school. If they flourish in school, we’re hopeful that the cycle of poverty, cycle of abuse, and things that they’ve experienced in their young lives will be changed.” Amen.

FEA and its members applaud Carroll for supporting community schools. I know it will work, and it has worked.

Public schools are key to giving students and communities hope. Students know they can have breakfast and lunch at school, that a nurturing teacher will be in their classroom, that if they are sick they can get care — and for a few hours a day they can escape the fog of poverty. Kids need more than being tested to escape the grasp of chronic poverty, and so do their communities.

Andy Ford is president of the Florida Education Association. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Graphic: added by the Observer: ImageFiesta.com

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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