from Red Orbit
By Maloney, Stephen
A TWO-PART SERIES LOOKING AT THE TWO MOST SIGNIFICANT FACTORS INFLUENCING
NEW ORLEANS PUBLIC SCHOOL STUDENTS: POVERTY AND VIOLENCE
When Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas was preparing to take over state-run New Orleans public schools in June 2007, the career educator sought the advice of experienced local leaders on how to approach his new job.
Having run the Chicago and Philadelphia school districts, which have many students living in poverty, Vallas expressed confidence in his ability to handle his new job with former New Orleans Mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu.
"I went over to his (Landrieu's) house one night and someone asked me to compare school districts and I talked about the poverty rates being comparable," Vallas said. "Moon turned to me and said, 'There's poverty and then there's Southern poverty -- deep poverty.'"
With more than three quarters of Louisiana's public school students classified as low income, the specter of poverty is casting a dark shadow across the state's educational landscape. Educational leaders say poor economic conditions severely limit student performance, creating a domino effect that can drag down a state or region's economy.
"On every major demographic and educational indicator, low- income students start behind, stay behind and fall behind," said Steve Suitts, Southern Education Foundation vice president. "As a nation, we still haven't really come to grips with this problem and what it means for education."
In the South, the number of low-income students has ballooned in the past four decades: 54 percent of the region's 50.1 million public school students are now classified as low income, according to a new SEF report, "A New Majority, Low Income Students in the South's Public Schools."
According to federal regulations, a family of two with an annual income of less than $14,000 lives below the poverty line and qualities for the free or reduced lunch program.
Low-income students are two to three times as likely to drop out of high school as more affluent students, Suitts said, wreaking havoc on the economy as unskilled dropouts hit the job market.
"There's nothing that will be more decisive in forecasting the economic health of Louisiana and the other Southern states than how well the states meet the challenge of educating this new majority," he said.
Vallas said more than 85 percent of the RSD's student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch program, a major indicator of a student's economic status.
"The higher the concentrations of poverty the greater the challenges," Vallas said. "In part, it certainly puts an added burden on the school systems that do not necessarily have the means to meet that burden."
Addressing the issue of student poverty has been one of the RSD's most important tasks, Vallas said.
The key to winning the battle against poverty in the classroom is early intervention, he said.
"There's no more effective way to attack the challenges of poverty than universal early childhood education," Vallas said.
Providing low-income students with the same level of education as more affluent students has to happen early and that extra effort must be maintained throughout a student's career for the negative effects of poverty to be cancelled out, Suitts said.
One of the underlying problems preventing adequate help from getting to impoverished students is the difficulty teachers can have determining the exact needs of each student, S.J. Green Charter School principal Tony Recasner said.
Ninety-eight percent of Green Charter's 325 students qualify for free lunch, but no two students have the same set of economic challenges to overcome, Recasner said.
"A lot of what happens is a function of the parent, typically a mother," he said. "The child's behavior and achievement in school is largely related to mom's aspirations and mom's circumstances."
A single mother working more than one job to make ends meet will more often than not have difficulty getting her child to school on time every day, resulting in a gap in the student's education, Recasner said.
In addition, the same overworked mother will seldom have time to help her child with homework or with a difficult assignment, further limiting classroom achievement.
"The way we best understand a student's achievement and behavior in school is really by getting as good an understanding as we can of their mother's circumstances," Recasner said. "Socioeconomic status is probably the biggest factor in determining the school success of children."
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