"Donít let poverty guarantee failure." By William L. Bainbridge. Cleveland Plain Dealer.
January 2001.

Donít let poverty guarantee failure

By William L. Bainbridge


One of every five children in the United States lives in poverty. We didnít need a presidential election to document the great divide between the "haves" and "have-nots" in this country. A recent visit by one of our audit teams to the nationís poorest school system produced numbers that would make even the most callous observer cringe.

A large percentage of poor children live in east St. Louis, Ill., than in any other school districts in the nation. East St. Louis earned this dubious distinction by tallying 58.3 percent of its children living in poverty. Camden, N.J. (51 percent), Detroit (46 percent), New Orleans (45 percent), Hartford, Conn., (44 percent), Atlanta (43 percent), Cleveland (43 percent), Dayton (42 percent), and St. Louis (40 percent) all significantly eclipse the shameful national average of more than 18 percent.

In East St. Louis, our audit team found 76 percent of the student population received free and reduced-price lunch, and 35 percent were from families receiving public aid. School district residents have an average per capita income of $7,013. East St. Louis spends only $4,227 per pupil annually. The average school district resident did not finish high school. Only 41 percent of primary school children were performing at grade level.

We know many school characteristics affect student achievement. In addition to the educational attainment of the mother, poverty level is the next best predictor of how students perform on reading, math and writing assessments. This relationship is consistent through all grades. While student achievement can best be predicted by the education level of the childís mother, the existence of poverty consistently best predicts poor scores, absenteeism and dropout rates.

The news media have heralded an unprecedented wave of prosperity in the last decade. However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in its Kids County Data Book 2000 that the number of children in the United States living in families that are defined as "working poor" has increased substantially since 1989 from 4.3 percent to 5.8 percent. This 35 percent increase is a trend going in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the federal governmentís greatest initiative to help poor schools is its subsidized meal programs. While more schools than ever participated in school breakfast and lunch programs, more than 2 million children at risk for hunger are not being reached, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center. Pediatric neurologists tell us protein is essential for effective brain growth and development in children under age 10. Many question the content of the U.S. Department of Agriculture prescribed meals served in the schools.

If children living in poverty are ever going to get a fair shake, more focus has to be given to parent and teacher training in helping poor, mostly minority children who enter schools with poor skills.

Parents and teachers of the poor need to:

Philanthropic groups and government agencies can play a vital role in helping parents and teachers promote desired outcomes through these basic steps. Parenting classes can be particularly helpful, especially to teenage parents. Some civic groups collect magazines and books for nursing homes. Why not do the same thing for distribution in schools? Some foundations and companies are providing schools with "loaner" computers for children to take home. Much more can be done with this concept.

Communities need to focus on early childhood education and helping school leaders deal with the critical issue of child poverty, which goes well beyond the scope and resources of our public school systems.

Bainbridge is president of SchoolMatch, a Columbus-based school research, performance auditing and consulting firm.