Denfeld News

Jan. 13, 2008
Duluth News Tribune

The price of poverty: Struggling to succeed in school
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 in Duluth.

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 survive.”

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 being neglectful.”

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 social worker.

“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 care.

“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,” she said.

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 said.

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,” he said.

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.”

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