December 20, 2000
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 larger percentage of poor children live in East St. Louis, Illinois, than in any other school system in the nation. East St. Louis earned this dubious distinction by tallying 58.3 % of its children living in poverty. Camden, NJ (51 %), Detroit (46 %), New Orleans (45 %), Hartford (44 %), Miami-Dade (44 %), Atlanta (43 %), Cleveland (43 %), Dayton (42 %), and St. Louis (40 %) all significantly eclipse the shameful national average of over 18 %.
In East St. Louis, our Audit team found 76 % of the student population on free and reduced price lunch and 35 % from families receiving public aid. School system residents have an average per capita income of $7,013. East St. Louis spends only $4,227 per pupil annually. The average school system resident did not finish high school (11.7 years of schooling) and only 41 % of primary school children were performing at grade level.
We know many school characteristics relate to 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 of the 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 drop-out rates.
The news media has heralded an unprecedented wave of prosperity in the last decade. However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported in its Kids Count 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 % to 5.8 %. This 35% increase is a trend going in the wrong direction.
Perhaps the Federal governmentís greatest contribution is its subsidized free meal programs. While more schools than ever participated in school breakfast and lunch programs, over 2 million children at risk for hunger are not being reached, according to the 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. Education Week, in its Quality Counts report, has documented the wide gap for students in central city school systems like East St. Louis. Clearly, one quarter of our children are suffering from deficiencies in their homes as well as their schools.
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 currently 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 "ET Goes Home" 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.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data