U.S. Secretary of Education John King's voice wavered slightly during the July 27 conference call, as he recounted his personal battles with poverty and homelessness.
"I know schools can save lives, because schools saved mine," King said. "Public school teachers gave me a sense of hope, created an environment that was structured and supportive. I understand school can be the difference as a safe and supportive place for students facing homelessness."
King was addressing members of the media about new proposed policies under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which will support mandated local liaisons in school districts to help identify and offer resources to students who classify as homeless. They will also help to clarify the unique needs of the rising homeless student population, which includes more than 1.3 million children throughout the country. More than half of the nation's public school children were low-income in 2013.
He also indicated that the Obama Administration has committed increases in funding to support programming support for homeless students — about $85 million for the next academic year. But many wonder if the federal government's support will be enough to solve the growing crisis, with far reaching impact on educational service delivery and performance metrics.
Social justice outside of education typically incorporates public views on inequalities in housing, income, and criminal justice administration. But for the children growing up in environments where these challenges impact their daily lives, the learning outcomes typically create another vicious cycle of divesting — through suspensions, expulsions and negative classroom experiences.
"A large number of students coming to school from poverty live in a chronic state of stress, with symptoms mimicking those of ADHD," said Eric Jensen, an author and researcher who has consulted with secondary systems nationwide on strategies to educate students from impoverished communities. "So they get labeled as discipline problems, when really, they are living under chronic stress."
Jensen said to combat the impact of poverty in the classroom, teachers should have way more empathy before judging students' ability and work to avoid judging students altogether."That's easier said than done, but teachers must understand kids don't choose parents, neighborhoods, DNA. So when they are being impulsive, challenging authority — these are symptoms that have been in literature for more than 30 years," he said.
Biochemically, Jensen said, elevated levels of cortisol can destroy brain cells. This change creates risk factors for depression, anxiety and anger, all which can be enhanced by environmental factors like unhealthy living conditions, violence or drug abuse in the home.
These factors can limit exposure to complex language, listening and responding, and slows the brain's capacity to handle processing, like rapid speaking.
To solve the issues, Jensen recommends schools emphasize relationship building and cultures of respect and encouragement for students. While it is a difficult proposition to ensure quality teachers at every level throughout a secondary career, Jensen said that five years of holistic learning and accounting for the effects of poverty, can all but eliminate their impact.
"It is a long-term process because what counts is how many minutes per day are they in a metabolic state. If I can keep them confident for five to six hours a day, then life is good. Five years in a row of above average teaching, and you can reduce the stressors among students and teachers that begin to make way for cognitive development and essential learning skills."
Views of poverty
Mississippi State University Sociology Professor Margaret Hagerman recently endeavored to capture and assess racial socialization processes among white, affluent children raised in the Midwest, her research creates distinct questions about how early experiences and awareness of poverty, could lay the foundation for future impressions which could influence economic policy.
“I would say that in talking with young people, mostly between the ages 5-12, the thing that was most surprising to me was the variation on how kids understand poverty,” Hagerman said. “All kids know that there are poor kids and rich kids. They’re aware that their school is better than another school.”
Those clear differences take the form of schools and systems going without valuable upgrades in technology, customary maintenance, and modern learning materials, but in April, research also showed those disparities are distributed primarily among racial lines.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of predominantly black or Hispanic K-12 schools classified as high poverty nearly doubled between 2001 and 2014, and the 8.1 million students in those schools received less instruction in math, science and college preparatory classes while also being statistically more likely to be suspended or expelled.
Instructional interruptions are a key measure of poverty impact in education.
States fall short
In Alabama, former Notasulga High School teacher Shirley Aaron recounts the ways in which schools tried to address key symptoms of poverty, like hunger, during the 1960s. She distinctly remembers a football player, the child of two alcoholic parents and one of the individuals who shaped her fictional narrative of desegregation in Macon County, AL.
"There was no free and reduced lunch program then, and the principal identified the children whom he thought came from very poor backgrounds," Aaron said. "He took them and all of their teachers down to the cafeteria and told the manager there 'These children are going to eat. They are going to get a plate, and go through the line, and they're going to eat with the rest of the children, but they won't have to pay for it. And no one will know about this but them, their teachers and us.'"
“If a child comes to school hungry and leaves school hungry, how can that child compete with the classmate who doesn’t have to worry about food, violence? He is already at an extreme disadvantage," Aaron said.
Notasulga remains one of the poorest schools in Alabama, and among its worst-performing, according to state data published in 2014. 100% of its student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch, and 93% of that student body is African American.
Of the 76 schools listed among the state's poorest and lowest performing, 51 enrolled more than 90% African Americans.
In an interview with the Hechinger Report, Parents’ Campaign Founder Nancy Loome shed light on the need for resources in economically disparate communities.
“Research has been very consistent in showing that children who live in poverty and have grown up in poverty need more resources in school to level the playing field and make sure they have access to some of the resources, or most of the resources, that their more affluent peers have,” she said.
A 2014 UCLA survey of 800 secondary teachers in California revealed malfunctioning equipment in schools, absences of teachers and students, higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, inadequate access to healthcare and environmental factors like unstable housing and chronic hunger dramatically decrease the amount of time allotted for teaching in high poverty schools.
According to the study's findings, students in high-poverty areas lose about 22 days of instruction due to these factors, compared to 12 days missed by students at schools with lower poverty levels.
UCLA education professor and study co-author John Rogers said, “No one could or would defend a system of public education that required students attending high-poverty schools to finish their school year two weeks before their peers in low-poverty schools. Nor would anyone defend sending students from high-poverty schools home a half hour early each day.”
But the 10 additional days out of class amount to just that. And while most students in affluent areas couldn’t imagine these kind of disparities, Hagerman said the clear disparities do foster an early sense of advocacy and concern.
“Some think that everyone can try their hardest, regardless of circumstances, and they are less concerned about injustice. But some can even talk about intergenerational examples of wealth, and intergenerational effects of race,” Hagerman said. “The positive in all of it is that some students understand that it shouldn’t be this way, and they become active in certain social justice initiatives.”
According to a 2015 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study, several states have slashed per-student funding to levels below marks created by the 2008 recession. Nationally, more than 297,000 teaching positions remain cut from public school systems which collectively lost 351,000 jobs between 2008 and 2012.
Over the same period, public school enrollment has increased by more than 800,000 nationally, crowding space, stretching resources and diminishing opportunities for effective engagement, particularly with students from underprivileged families and communities.
The numbers are a harsh complement to the growing data on the number of segregated, under-resourced school districts, particularly in the south. In Mississippi, one of the nation’s poorest states, 30% of school-aged children live in poverty, 10% more than the national average.
Working toward solutions
While the mounting research on poverty impact frames the discussion as virtually irreversible, some colleges and universities across the U.S. are mission-mandated to reverse the impact of poverty on long term economic fortunes of states.
The Southern University System is the nation’s only historically black system of higher education, and its flagship campus welcomes more than 6,300 students — 78% of whom are Pell Grant eligible.
System provost and vice president of academic affairs M. Christopher Brown II said the role of higher education in reversing poverty demands a recalibration of student engagement and professional development approaches.
“Sadly, we are normative as higher ed practitioners acting as if all students come with the same portfolio of experiences. We often fail to acknowledge the differential impact of our majors across class, especially in nursing, education.”
Brown said exposing students to majors like social work and child services serves community needs, but does not generate transformational access to wealth and community-changing professional and economic development, such as science, entrepreneurship, agribusiness and healthcare.
With the upcoming election, timing is more critical in addressing poverty and its long term effects.
“The fast-approaching presidential election provides a window for all colleges and universities to seriously consider access as it relates to financial ability, and the training of students to engage in non-normative practices. Everyone is not middle class, and in recognizing that, our campuses can lead in creating real commitment to all Americans without consideration of race or finances.”