Jan. 13, 2008
The price of poverty: Struggling to succeed
By Sarah Horner
Dinner didn’t just show up on the kitchen
table in Tasha Hoskins’ house. With a sick mom and an out-of-the-picture
dad, the Duluth East High School graduate had to fend for herself
when she got hungry, the same way she did when she had questions
on homework or needed a new pair of jeans.
“We were pretty much independent all of
our life,” Tasha, 18, said about herself and her 17-year-old
brother, David. “[My mom] was there for us when she could
be, but otherwise we had to take care of ourselves.”
Their mother’s illness — she suffers
from depression — made it difficult for her to hold down steady
jobs while Tasha and David were growing up. David pinned hopes of
financial stability on himself. The Denfeld High School junior works
nearly 40 hours a week as a busboy at a local restaurant. Much of
his money goes toward shoes, clothes and school supplies, and sometimes
groceries and utility bills. He heads to work right after school
and usually doesn’t arrive home until after midnight.
“It’s hard to find time to learn when
I am busy working to get money for the things I need,” he
said. “I try and get my homework done in class or in my study
hall; there’s not a lot of time.”
In the center of the city, William Weaver, 17,
is adjusting to his senior year at Central High School. Duluth’s
is his fourth school system. An abusive relationship forced his
mother to pick up her children and move around a lot. They’ve
lived on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation, in Minneapolis,
in Idaho and even in Guam. Most times they left quickly and took
little with them.
“It’s been hard; I make friends and
lose friends,” he said. “I guess I’ve gotten used
to it for how many schools I’ve been to, but I would have
loved to stay at one school my whole life.”
Tasha’s, David’s and William’s
stories represent a few of the countless and sometimes unmentioned
hardships faced by youths growing up in poverty, a mounting reality
Ten years ago, about 30 percent of students in
the Duluth school district received free and reduced lunches —
the federal education department’s measure for poor and low-income
students. Today that number is about 40 percent, trailing only the
Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts for the highest percentage
of low-income students in the state, according to numbers recorded
last year on the Minnesota Department of Education’s Web site.
Circumstances, such as those depicted by Tasha,
David and William, can make academic success a challenge for students
living in poverty, as evidenced by the achievement gap between low-
and higher-income students that exists across the country.
Students receiving free and reduced lunches in
Duluth lagged about 27 percentage points behind the rest of the
student body on state math and reading tests given last year, according
to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment II results.
“Some of these kids don’t always have
a familiar roof over their heads, or clean clothes on their back,
or even food,” said Tom Tusken, a teacher at Denfeld. “It’s
like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How important is homework
when your stomach’s growling or you’re trying to find
a place to sleep at night? Some of these kids are just trying to
A window into the gap
At Nettleton Magnet Elementary School, where about
80 percent of students receive free and reduced lunches, educators
notice hints of the gap in kindergarten.
A basic vocabulary test given annually at the
school found 67 percent of kindergartners last year were unfamiliar
with words necessary to comprehend teacher instruction, such as
up, down, over and under, Principal Stephanie Heilig said.
The percentage has increased over the years, mirroring
the rise in the school’s free and reduced lunch population,
she said. “Our moms and dads are working multiple jobs just
to put food on the table,” Heilig said. “When you are
that busy surviving and caring for your kids, sometimes things like
bedtime stories don’t happen. It has nothing to do with parents
Low-income parents also are hard-pressed to afford
trips to museums, zoos and other stimulating learning environments
for their kids.
Without exposure to books or enriched learning
experiences, kids have limited opportunities to pick up basic concepts.
“A teacher might be on a third-grade animal
unit and start talking about which animals live in the desert. We
have kids that are absolutely clueless on what a desert is,”
Heilig said. “Or even something as simple as Wisconsin —
they have no idea there is a state across the bridge. Many have
never been there.”
Low-income students in that situation often need
to make one-and-a-half to two-year gains to be ready for first grade.
Once they get there, teachers try to keep them at pace with other
students, but the manifestations of poverty — busy parents
unable to get involved in their children’s education, transience,
illness due to inadequate health care, absences from school because
a family’s car won’t start — fight against them.
Those same circumstances get harder to deal with
in middle school, when students are forced to be more independent.
“In elementary school, kids are in a contained
classroom with one teacher, which makes it a lot easier to keep
track of a student’s spelling or math progress,” said
Bonnie Wolden, principal at Woodland Middle School. “In middle
school, students are going to a new class with a new teacher every
50 minutes; the system doesn’t allow teachers to get to know
their students in the same way.”
Students in middle school also have an elevated
awareness of their financial situation, said Tracy Litman, a school
“Kids start to feel stress at that age,
and there is no greater stress than economics in a family,”
she said. “If dad loses his job, it can permeate a child’s
whole existence. They start to worry about adult things when they
should be worrying about kid things.
“They are in a state ofongoing grief; you’re
constantly hoping a teacher doesn’t ask for that shop fee
in front of the whole class or that your friends don’t notice
you wore something two days in a row. It’s a state of feeling
like the whole world has something you don’t. Poverty blurs
the line between pride and pain.”
David Hoskins remembers that feeling of isolation
in middle school.
“I remember one of my friends had a Nintendo
64 at his house and thinking it was weird because I never had those
kinds of things,” he said. “I didn’t really have
people over to my house because I didn’t want them to see
where I lived.”
The weight of those emotions sometimes can be
more than a student can carry.
“When you can’t cope, you can’t
learn,” Litman said.
More challenges get lumped on in high school,
when some low-income students may be asked to stay home from school
to watch younger siblings for working parents unable to afford child
“We see that more and more,” said
Lisa Mitchell-Krocak, principal at Central High School. “Missing
even one day of notes in some classes can be a major setback for
a student; when it happens regularly, it’s a big problem.”
Low-income students are more likely to drop out
of high school than their higher-income peers, said Andi Egbert,
research director for the Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota.
“It’s kind of just a given that kids
in poverty are more likely to struggle in the classroom,”
Egbert said, “and when school feels like a struggle, it can
be tempting to just quit going altogether.”
The likelihood of dropping out becomes even greater
when a student doesn’t have other family members with high
school diplomas, said Deb Wagner, homeless services coordinator
for the Duluth school district.
“When that hasn’t been modeled or
valued in your life, it can be hard to make the connection,”
Wagner said. “Kids leave their junior year without really
thinking about the consequences.”
Why it matters
The potential consequences can be severe. Dropouts
are twice as likely as high school graduates to live in poverty
and three times as likely as college graduates to be unemployed,
said Ryan Streeter, vice president of Civic Enterprises, a public
policy firm based in Washington, D.C., and Ohio that has studied
the impact of dropping out of school.
“These are the impacts of poverty we need
to wake up to as a society,” said Jim Pierre,a social worker
at Woodland Middle School. “Povertydoesn’t just cost
those living in it. The rest of us pay a price, too. I can’t
cite you the name of a study, but I am sure that not too far from
poverty is crime, drug and alcohol use, welfare.”
The best way for society to intervene is to support
education, Wagner said.
“One of the things we know we have a little
control over is education,” she said. “If we can make
sure kids are enrolled, make sure they are attending, assist with
transportation … we can move these kids through the school
system so they can graduate with the skills they need to get a job
and create healthy lives.”
That’s why eliminating the achievement gap
and keeping kids connected to school is so important, Wagner said.
“It’s a way to break the cycle of
poverty for these students. It’s their ticket to freedom,”
Tasha Hoskins said shedidn’t believe there
was a ticket with her name on it until she reached high school and
met a teacher who convinced her to give school a second chance.
“She helped me realize that if I ever wanted
to have a good job, I had to finish school,” she said. “If
I hadn’t had her, I probably would have gone along with the
crowd I was in, not turning in homework, always outside smoking.”
By her junior year Tasha was taking health classes
at Duluth’s Secondary Technical School and garnering high-enough
marks to join Health Occupation Students of America.
“You have to have like a B or C average
to get in. I never thought I’d fit that standard,” she
Today she is a high school graduate with plans
to enroll in a community college.
David and William are not too far behind her.
David’s turnaround started sophomore year.
“I was goofing around in a class and not
doing very well, and my teacher told me that if I didn’t pass
I would mess up my credits and wouldn’t be able to graduate,”
he said. “In middle school you could do whatever you wanted
and move on, so that was kind of news to me.
“I thought it was cool that he let me know
the road I was going on wasn’t so good. I probably would have
ended up somewhere I didn’t want to be.”
David started applying himself. On top of working
40 hours a week, he averages between a 3.5 and a 3.7 grade point
average at school and might have enough credits to graduate early.
He plans to go to a state college, perhaps the University of Minnesota,
and pursue a law or medicine degree. He doesn’t complain about
how far he’s had to come.
“It’s given me more to strive for,”
William hasn’t made up his mind about college
but he knows he wants to get his high school diploma.
“I want to prove something to myself,”
he said. “Nobody in our family every graduates; my sister
did but all my cousins and stuff dropped out. I want to make my
mother proud, and my grandmother.”