Fifty-some students from Mrs. Brewer’s and Mr. Daniels’ fifth grade classes stuffed into one half of the portable classroom outside Fircrest Elementary School last May. They sat grouped together on chairs and on the floor, chattering noisily as eleven year olds are known to do. Jennifer Horowitz had just handed out job assignment for the following week’s BizTown simulation, and the kids were excited to find out what their jobs would be . “This is going to be a challenge, but I have faith in you,” Horowitz edified, shoving as much preparation and encouragement as she could into her remaining minutes with the students.
Five years ago Horowitz introduced Junior Achievement’s BizTown into the Illahee Elementary School. When a school fire destroyed the Crestline Elementary School, one of Evergreen School District’s poorest schools, in February of 2013, Horowitz and substitute teacher Stephanie Braden, secured sponsorship from the local business community to bring the program to the displaced fifth graders.
While Horowitz’s tone was upbeat with the kids, it was grave in a whispered comment as she briefly stopped to observe the class. “I underestimated the difference between the two schools,” Horowitz confessed. “The kids are struggling with the content. I have parents volunteering and then dropping out, and I am scrambling to get enough people to the event to make it a success,” Horowitz said before rejoining the students.
The percentage of students on the school’s federal lunch program at Crestline is 78.9 percent. At Illahee, where parents volunteer eagerly to spend the day with their kids, the rate is 22 percent. Same district, different sides of town.
Since 1946, meeting the nutritional needs of the nation’s students has been part of the federal budget. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 is the latest iteration of school nutritional legislation. Directly pegged to the federal poverty levels as determined by the Department of Health and Human Services, eligibility for school nutrition programs is an obvious indicator of the percentage of children living in poverty. The chart above shows that, at least in Clark and Cowlitz counties, the higher the percentage of children living in poverty, the lower the test scores on state standardized tests.
Much is written about poverty and the poverty mindset. One thing everyone agrees on is that poverty has far-reaching consequences. One of the goals of public education is to help intervene with the cycle of poverty by providing a strong, basic education to all children. But food and a classroom may not be enough to battle the often generational effects of poverty.
“The biggest obstacle we face (in education) is poverty,” said Jo Perkins, 22 year veteran special education teacher in Longview, Washington. (Perkins is the author’s sister and President of the teacher’s union). “It isn’t always that parents don’t care,” she said explaining why she has a low record of parents’ attendance at student conferences. “It’s that they don’t have gas money or can’t take time off from work,” Perkins said, adding, “Sometimes they are self-conscious about how they dress, and that can keep them from coming in.”
View Clark & Cowlitz School Districts (Numbers from 2011) in a larger map
Family life, according to Perkins, is a strong indicator of school success. “We have a group of students who come from the country and tend to come from larger families. The families are generally intact,” Perkins continued. “There are a lot of kids, so by the time the little guys are in school, they’ve already picked up a lot of life from their older brothers and sisters. They play outside and they have a strong community. It makes a difference in their ability to learn,” she said.
John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, and an avid student of the genetics of psychiatric disorders. Medina is fluent in the neurobiology of the brain and how it learns. In his book, Brain Rules, Medina writes: “One of the greatest predictors of performance in school turns out to be the emotional stability of the home.” He recounts a story of his mother who was a fourth grade teacher. As an ace student’s family life fell apart, so did the girl’s performance at school. Medina quotes his mom’s first ever use of profanity: “The ability of Kelly to do well in my class has nothing to do with my class!” (Profanity omitted.)
Medina spells out universal learning rules that, if followed, can lead to great gains in learning. Unfortunately, those gains can be reversed from stress - the kind of stress that often accompanies poverty. Medina writes, “Stress hormones can disconnect neural networks, the webbing of brain cells that act like a safety deposit vault, storing your most precious memories.”
Not a fan of the traditional classroom, (“If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”) Medina’s brain-based solutions would take educational reform to a whole new level. He suggests starting education with the parents. Medina advocates robust intervention classes: parenting, marital counseling, and job counseling.
The good news, according to Medina’s Brain Rules, is that the brain has what neuroscientists term plasticity. It is not the fixed organ we used to believe it to be. When treated well, the brain can essentially rewire itself to health.
(Pages cited from Medina’s book: 5, 179, 183)