Many a times I hear people joke, ” I’m so poor I can’t pay attention!” Today, on this international blogactionday against poverty… that joke, that simple statement has taken a profoundly different meaning. For some kids, that statement is just a joke, but for many kids that is the truth. Kids living in poverty do have a difficult time paying attention in class. Statistically, it has been proven that poor kids struggle in school more than the higher income kids who do not have to worry about their basic needs of food and shelter. The socio-economic status of a student is one of the most important factors in student success or failure in the classroom. In a recent article,Class matters- In and out of school: Closing gaps and requires attention to issues of race and poverty, Boyd-Zaharias & Pate-Bain wrote,”Low achievement and dropping out are problems rooted in social and economic inequality- a force more powerful than curricula, teaching practices, standardized tests or other school-related policies”. What this means is that in order for students to be successful their basic needs has to be met first. It is very difficult to engage students in the classroom when they are worried about where they are going to sleep or what they are going to eat once the bell rings. The two meals a day at school is more than some of the kids would get if they were home. In some cases, the school is a sanctuary for kids who are abused, neglected and abandoned by parents who leave them to fend for themselves. Some kids are even forced to fight for their own basic needs when their parents feel that they are old enough to contribute. Some of these kids end up working under the table to buy food and help pay for bills.
A couple of years ago I had a kid who moved from California to Arizona because he got in trouble with the law there. He moved in with his dad who was a construction worker. Joe would miss school a lot and at first I would get on him about his absences and preached to him about the importance of education because I didn’t know about his home situation. He did not tell me why he was frequently absent until a day after his fifteenth birthday. On his birthday, he didn’t come to school because he was working under the table with his dad to make money. When he came back I told him to stop ditching school. I remember him looking at me and said, ” Ms. A yesterday was my birthday… nobody cared, not even my dad, his girlfriend… nobody did anything for me or say anything to me.” I don’t know who was more shocked, me for discovering the truth or him for letting me know his secret. I couldn’t say anything… my mind went blank. What do you say to a kid who looks at you in despair, in frustration? Do your homework? Pay attention? No, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell Joe to stop missing school. I couldn’t tell him to write his essays. Instead I told him to take care of himself and if he needed help I was there for him.
As a teacher I see all types of kids come through my classroom and I am not talking about good kids or bad kids; I’m talking about kids from high, middle , and low income. At the school I teach at, over 62% of our students are on free or reduce lunches. They are identified as the economically disadvantage. Some of these kids are migrant where their parents move around the agricultural region because of the field jobs. Some of these kids come from a single parent home in which the majority of the time the mothers are the head of the household… the father no longer in their lives emotionally or financially. It is amazing that against all odd many are successful because they believe that education is their way out. They are right. Education is the key to end poverty… to break the poor soci-economic cycle. If these kids want a better life, they have to get their education and fight against cultural norms and break free from the economic barrier they grew up in. As an educator I think it is vital to remember what Eli Broad says, “Public education is the key civil rights issue of the 21st century. Our nation’s knowledge-based economy demands that we provide young people from all backgrounds and circumstances with the education and skills necessary to become knowledge workers. If we don’t, we run the risk of creating an even larger gap between the middle class and the poor. This gap threatens our democracy, our society and the economic future of America.”