Addressing Our Opportunity Gap – A Local Approach

brownThis month marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Today, thanks to the courage of 8-year-old Linda Brown, we know that we cannot meet the promise of equal rights under the law unless every child has access to an education. Indeed, Brown was not solely a symbolic fight to show all our children are equal; it was about equal access to equitably funded educational resources.

Despite decades of progress, that access is slipping, and an insidious and less obvious segregation is growing. It’s not all about intractable discrimination and the legacy of Jim Crow in the South anymore. Now, some of our most segregated schools are in the North and mid-Atlantic states.

brownvboardhistoricsitecropA combination of faulty or nonexistent housing policy, the economic crisis, and the privatization of swaths of urban school districts have left many schools more segregated than they were in the 50s. In New York City, half of the more than 1,600 public schools are more than 90 percent Black and Hispanic; in many cases, White families with access to more resources have simply “given up” on their neighborhood schools in favor of private schools or corporate-run charter schools.

Child Poverty—Across the United States. And here.

Today’s segregation of public school students stems from what educational policy scholar Diane Ravitch calls a “toxic mix” of poverty, inequality, and racial segregation, with poverty playing a leading role. According to the Southern Education Foundation, 48 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the leading indicator of poverty among school-aged children. Yes, one out of two public school students nationwide is poor.

Last year, UNICEF reported on poverty and the well-being of children in developed countries. Of the 35 developed nations that UNICEF examined, the United States ranked 34th, just above Romania. More troubling data show that poor people in the United States stay poor longer than those in other countries. The longer that U.S. children live in poverty, the more difficult it is for them to emerge. Maryland is faring slightly better than the national trend; 39 percent of Maryland children are considered to be living in poverty.

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Our childhood poverty problem in Frederick County is complex and growing. Currently, 26 percent of our public school students live at or below the poverty line. Frederick County Public Schools’ Superintendent, Dr. Theresa Alban, regularly shares that this group – about 11,000 children – could twice fill Harry Grove stadium. Some of our more urban schools, including Hillcrest Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, and Waverley Elementary, are eligible for additional Federal funding and programs under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.

Title I is intended to close the achievement gap between minority and non-minority students and between those who are less advantaged and those who have access to more economic resources. Spring Ridge Elementary, which absorbed some of the population of the now-closed East Frederick Elementary, also receives some Title I funds.

While the centralization of Title I resources and other programs in a few schools may suggest that our County’s poor children are primarily located in and around the City of Frederick, our County’s poverty is also rural and suburban. From Thurmont to Walkersville to Mt. Airy to Urbana to Middletown to Point of Rocks to Linganore to Emmitsburg, we have families struggling tremendously.

fctowns250wHere is a sampling of quick statistics on public school children who are poor across the county:
44% of Emmitsburg Elementary students; 36% of Governor Thomas Johnson High students; 17% of Middletown Primary students; 11% of Linganore High students; 32% of Tuscarora Elementary students; 18% of Brunswick High students; 40% of Frederick High students; 88% of Hillcrest Elementary students; 27% of students at the Rock Creek School; 27% of Walkersville Middle students; 7% of Urbana High students; and 30% of Thurmont Middle students.

There is also certainly a layer of struggling families hovering just above the poverty level, which is defined as an annual income of about $22K for a family of four. And we don’t have a way to count those children in our schools or to understand the stressors they face or how those stressors impact their learning and achievement. Likewise, there are grim depths to childhood poverty in Frederick County. During this school year, over 700 children have been identified as homeless, and the geographic statistics are often surprising. Most of these children are spread throughout the County, far away from the downtown Frederick Community Action Agency Shelter, the only shelter in Frederick County that can accommodate families (when it has space).

Experience with our community’s new homeless student service and advocacy group, the Student Homelessness Initiative Partnership (SHIP) has shown that our efforts are merely sandbags at the base of the levee. Our homeless families sleep “doubled-up” on floors and couches, in motels, in cars, camping trailers, and tents. Despite the fact that our County government allocates about 26M for a variety of social services, the gaps in our safety nets are plentiful and wide.

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Impacts – The Opportunity Gap

The social and health crises of childhood poverty cannot be understated, and our poor children in Frederick County are facing the same impacts as children nationwide. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) called poverty the “most important problem facing children today” and cited poverty as the most significant cause of childhood emotional and physical problems.

In addition to reams of data on low birth weight, and the challenges of the malnutrition spectrum, from hunger to obesity, the AAP is now focused on the physical, intellectual, and emotional changes that occur in children who are exposed to the long-term stress that is unavoidable for poor families. These stressors include factors such as housing insecurity and homelessness, the challenges of caring for siblings, health issues of parents or caregivers, including addiction, and a general lack of feeling secure during the years when that feeling is most important to healthy brain and emotional development.

As children who live in poverty grow into adults, the risks get bigger and the outcomes more permanent. These children are less likely to graduate and less likely to ever achieve reach their full economic productivity. Data are clear that adolescents who are poor are more likely to abuse alcohol, drugs, and to have unprotected sex. These actions often lead to what the AAP and others call “trajectory altering events” that make extended poverty unavoidable.

Since the No Child Left Behind Act, school districts have been required to examine student achievement data by race, gender, disability, and socioeconomic status. Gaps between Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White students, students with special needs, and English language learners have persisted.

Our educators in Frederick County have been tracking these data long before Federal mandates required it, and they know that the common factor that crosses every group that lags in achievement is always poverty. The best place to read the statistics, and they are immensely troubling, is via the “Master Plan” that FCPS is required to submit to the State to detail gaps in achievement. See: http://www.fcps.org/Page/21 and use Free and Reduced Meals as the proxy for poverty. School by school, child by child, the connection between poverty and lagging achievement is clear.

EAG250wOur community has been working on this problem for some time. In 2003, a group of forward-thinking community members, church leaders, and advocates came together to form the group Eliminating Achievement Gaps, Inc. (EAG) to tackle the problem of at-risk students in Frederick County Public Schools. EAG has long-recognized that, while Frederick County has some of the best-performing students in the country, those students are often students who are not poor or Black or Hispanic. For many years, researchers called this the “Achievement Gap.” Perhaps the better term is “Opportunity Gap” because the many high barriers – stress, hunger, poor health, housing insecurity, and others — imposed by poverty are preventing our children from reaching their potential.

One of the most telling statistics concerns the poverty rate for students who attend Frederick County’s Heather Ridge School, which serves students who have not been successful at their “home” schools because of serious behavioral or other issues. A full 80 percent of students served at this school are poor. When I grew up in this school system a few decades ago, children who were redirected to Heather Ridge were known as troublemakers. Sadly, it is clear that many of those kids may be facing a host of stressors and unmet needs outside of school because of poverty.

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Local Vision. Local Solutions.

Every school in Frederick County is doing some tremendous things to combat the opportunity gap by working to knock down some of the barriers imposed by poverty. Step into any classroom, any cafeteria, any media center, any after-school program, and you’ll see teachers, administrators, staff, and volunteers providing a host of specialized services and care for our most vulnerable students.

It is clear that care and resolve abound. At Spring Ridge Elementary, the Police Athletic League sponsors an after-school program where the children benefit just as much from the presence of adult role models as they do from the tutoring. At many of our schools, administrators are working from sun-up to sunset overseeing a number of programs and interventions that start with tutoring and activities for students who receive breakfast at school to evening reading and family dinner programs.

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In Middletown, a conglomeration of churches provide an established “weekend backpack” food program.

blessinginabackpack250wLikewise, this year, committed community members with business sponsors and donors have started a Blessings in a Backpack Program at Orchard Grove Elementary and Parkway Elementary. And every single day, despite the pressures of growing class sizes, new curricula, and six years of an insufficient “maintenance of effort” budget from our county government, we know our teachers and staff and administrators are spending extra time, care, and resources — often from their own pockets— to meet the needs of our students who live in poverty.

Despite all of this care and work, the opportunity gap persists. It’s not about test scores or rankings for Frederick County, it’s really about the depths of missed potential for a full quarter of our students. And it’s most certainly about the promise of equal access under Brown. Simply, when we allow barriers to persist, our students are not able to access the education to which they are entitled.

These barriers will only come down with local vision, strategy, and a shared purpose. We cannot continue to allow our schools to singlehandedly absorb the impacts and costs of childhood poverty, and we cannot keep believing that new Federal or State emphasis on assessments or “increasing rigor” will somehow address root causes that have everything to do with poverty and nothing to do with curricula or testing. And we cannot talk about our world class school system in Frederick County when a full quarter of our students are not able to fully access their education.

Addressing childhood poverty is not work for any single group of people or any one budget within our private, non-profit, or public sector.

judycenterTo succeed in knocking down the barriers imposed by poverty, we must truly bring our collective impact to bear on this work. And we already know this approach works in Frederick County because of our Judy Center. Across Maryland, Judith P. Hoyer Early Child Care and Family Education Centers (known as “Judy Centers”) provide a central location for early childhood education and support services for children birth through Kindergarten and their families who reside in specific Title I school districts across the State of Maryland. 

Our Judy Center, like the ones in every County that has schools that qualify for Title I funding, is successful because it promotes school readiness through collaboration with community-based agencies, organizations, and businesses. Our Judy Center partners with the YMCA, Early Intervention, and a host of non-profits to provide seamless and cost-effective service delivery to ensure children from 0-5 are ready for Kindergarten.

The day I visited our Judy Center, several families stopped by after school to pick up winter coats, packets of library books, and some educational games. A staff member moved effortlessly back and forth between conversations in Spanish and English. I learned about evening literacy events where families share a cooking lesson for a healthy and cost-effective meal, and practice reading with their children. Then, Cathy Nusbaum, the Judy Center Director, told me about their success. Last year, our County’s Judy Center services touched about 900 children, all of whom are living in poverty and many of whom are from families that primarily speak a language other than English. Of those 900 children, over 800 were considered Kindergarten-ready by age 5; this is an amazing, tremendous success rate and a perfect example of a collective approach that provides measurable outcomes.

The Judy Center’s success is a reminder that our community is poised to tackle big problems with the right focus and approaches. Our new charter government provides us an opportunity to create a new vision, strategy, and real plans that include our government, schools, non-profit, and business community. Poverty will exist, but we can and must work to minimize its impacts on our children’s education.

Our Board of Education can and must work hand-in-hand with county leaders and community advocates and service providers to build a community that focuses on knocking down the barriers that prevent poor children from equal access to their education.


A Sampling of Resources

Brown v. Board of Education:

CNN
Brown at 60
May 17, 2014

Baltimore Sun
60 Years After Brown in Maryland
May 11, 2014

Resources about U.S. Poverty, Poverty in Children, Inequality:

Southern Education Foundation
A New Majority; Low Income Students in the South and North
October 2013.

Paul Krugman, NY Times
Why Inequality Matters
December 16, 2013

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post
The Biggest Scandal in America
June 11, 2013

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post
The Most Important Problem Facing American Children Today
May 14, 2013

PBS
The Numbers, Childhood Poverty in the U.S.
November 20, 2012

Local Resources:

Frederick County Public Schools

Eliminating Achievement Gaps, Inc.

The Judy Center

Students Homelessness Initiative Partnership

Blessings in a Backpack, Frederick County