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Virginia Journal of Education

Destitute in the Old Dominion

How poverty looks in our classrooms.

We could cite painful statistics on poverty for several pages. Here are just a couple, from the Virginia Interfaith Center and the Coalition on Human Needs:

• More than one-quarter of Virginians now live below the federal poverty level. Nearly one in six of our state’s children, one in three of our black children, and one in five of our Hispanic children are growing up in poverty.

We could also go on for pages about the ugly ways poverty affects its young victims. Again, just a sampling:

• Numerous studies have found that children of poverty are more likely to suffer from health problems, developmental delays and behavior issues. They also have a better chance of not doing well in school and being unemployed as adults.

But statistics and studies are the stuff of research and academia. The calamity that is poverty in our country and state comes to school every day in the faces of children and teenagers. Behind the numbers and the dire predictions, here’s how poverty really looks in Virginia’s classrooms, in the words of our educators:

The Best-Laid Plans…
You can come prepared with the most exciting lesson plans and motivational techniques in the world, but what do you do when your second-grader eats the lesson prompt—a white turnip brought in to teach Peter Rabbit Raids Mr. McGregor’s Garden? Or when students beg for some of the food they see set out in the teachers’ lounge?
When I taught summer school this year, students arrived at 8:30 a.m. and worked very hard until just after noon. During class time, they’d snack on soda and chips from the school vending machines, but no one had a lunch brought from home. “Can I borrow a quarter, Ms. P?” a student would ask, and then meander toward another teacher asking the same question, hoping to come up with a single dollar for a bag of chips.
How can students complete the classwork expected of them while being undernourished and thirsty? And how can teachers prepare to teach hungry students?
 --Dian Parrotta, Fairfax

Going Nowhere Fast
Everyone knows that children in poverty struggle with basic elements like food, shelter and clothing. There are deeper issues, however, that affect learning and they’re just as insidious. Such children often have no opportunity to travel, and I don't mean they aren't able to take cruises or trips to Vegas. Many never get outside their county or city.
For example, one year I chaperoned a group of students on a field trip to the other end of the state. While there, we visited a large shopping mall. As we were waiting for a student to make a purchase, another student motioned to the escalator and asked, "What's that?" Before I could answer, several shoppers stepped onto it, causing the student to excitedly ask, "Can I ride it?!"  I’ve spent my entire life living and working in high-poverty areas, and it never dawned on me that there are children here who have never seen an escalator.
Funding cuts affect students of poverty more than any other group. Field trips are eliminated and with them the opportunity to gain exposure to the world. This basic lack of background knowledge has an impact in every subject area. A math problem about an escalator's speed and incline would be lost on this child. Many students west of Roanoke have never seen the ocean or even visited a bookstore. On that field trip, a student went into a Barnes & Noble and exclaimed, "I didn't even know there were so many magazines in the world!" Students in poverty don’t have access to magazines, newspapers or the Internet. The insular world they live in limits their ability to apply prior knowledge to the learning experience, which is a vital component in moving forward.
 --Renee McAvoy, Tazewell County

It Breaks My Heart
Poverty is an ugly, insidious creature, and in my 24 years as an educator, I’ve seen it slowly, deliberatively devour young people’s enthusiasm for learning, zest for life, and hope for the future. Being almost entirely helpless to get children out of this predicament leaves me enraged, resentful and indignant.
Martin (all names are changed) transferred into our school not long ago, and is a withdrawn, anxious seventh-grader. I’ve learned some of his backstory, and it’s heartbreaking. One parent has been incarcerated; the other, addicted to drugs, has stated in court and in front of Martin that she doesn’t want custody of him. An elderly grandparent currently has custodial rights. Sadly, this adult is homeless, and the two of them live in a shabby, filthy hotel. It’s no surprise that Martin’s hygiene is deplorable and that he struggles in school. He’s hungry, dirty, smelly and, for the most part, unwanted. My heart breaks for him.
Timothy is an impressive young man. He loves to dress in suits like a businessman, excels in class, and has an outgoing, fun-loving personality. His dream is to attend the University of Virginia. He’s also from an extremely poor family and gets his clothes through school, from an anonymous community member. He smells of cigarette smoke and takes advantage of every opportunity to be in the school building. If I had the money, I would promise him that if he would continue to excel and allow me to mentor him, I’d send him to college. With such hope, I like to think he would have the motivation to stay off drugs, avoid gangs, stay in school, and strive to attain his goals. He most definitely has the potential. Unfortunately, the reality is that the cards are stacked against Timothy. If only he had a middle-class family to raise him. If only.
Bethany is another bright student who takes advantage of most every opportunity to be within the safety of our school building. One day as I was teaching, a student sitting behind her motioned me over to her desk and whispered that she’d seen an insect on Bethany’s sweatshirt. I saw two insects quickly crawling on her clothing, and I knew without a doubt that I had just seen my first bedbugs. At the nurse’s office we found a total of five bedbugs on her clothing. Bethany’s father apologized, but said he had no money to eradicate the infestation in their apartment. I now live in fear I’ll carry one of the detestable critters home and have to deal with the costly procedures of eradicating them from my house.
 --Karen Cross, Bristol

Sometimes in Unexpected Places
The culture of poverty is everywhere. When I taught in rural Alleghany County, I was at a school where 65 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced lunch. Now I’m in prosperous Fairfax County and my school still has 65 percent who qualify.
 I teach middle school students, and poverty can distract them in so many ways. Lots of them wear many hats outside of school, especially the girls. Rural and suburban girls, no matter how important education is to them and their families, often still end up being the caretakers at home until evening. That leaves some of them tired during the day, so they shrug off their studies and are often unprepared, unmotivated and uninvolved in school. Others who would really like to get extra academic help after school can’t get it because they’re needed at home to babysit, cook and clean.
Some rural boys, even nowadays, are still working important jobs at home for their families. Many will play sports, though, but won’t focus on academics unless it affects their sports.
Contacting parents in poverty is routinely difficult. Not getting through to a parent is very common; the phone number on file is wrong or disconnected. And if you get a corrected number, it may not work a month or two later. There might not be voice mail, and if there is, the mail box could be filled. If you do leave a message, frequently you get no response.
 I’ve seen some really great responses to students living in poverty. One school had an after-school program for up to 400 kids, offering academic help, dinner, and clubs and activities. These kids stayed till 5:30 three days a week with busing. Dinner was served every weekday, though, if students could find rides home. The dinner and food service were provided by community organizations; other groups donated food, some of which went home with certain students to feed their families over the weekend. This program kept poverty front and center for school staff.
 --Teddy Wheeler, Fairfax

No Time for Youthful Innocence
Kids have come to my school on a day when a body has been found out front. When we take them to the playground, they find needles. These are things no child should be exposed to—how can that not affect their learning?
 When we take kids on a field trip to a farm, they often don’t know the difference between a cow and a dog. They don’t know many of the animals at the zoo, either. They’ve never been to a farm or to the zoo. They’ve also never been to the beach—they don’t know the difference between the ocean, a lake or a pond. We have sand tables at school, but that’s not the same as seeing and hearing the waves or picking up shells.
 Many of their parents are too busy trying to survive and get meals together to help with homework, and if they didn’t get food bags sent home for the weekend, some of them wouldn’t have anything to eat.
 How do you get teaching done in those conditions?
 --Lola McDowell, Richmond (retired)

Poverty and Potential
Sam (not his real name) is a seventh-grader and usually misses one or two days each week because his mother won’t get up and bring him the couple of miles to school. On days he does get here, he’s tardy. Many days he comes to school dirty, with uncombed hair, and in total disarray. He’s come to school with no socks and shoes, and he always seems sleepy. Sam, his parents and his three siblings, at one time, were living in a trailer without running water, heat or electricity.
Sam never gets his work completed. He’s always “somewhere else.” We have had three units of vocabulary words with 20 words in each unit. Sam never seems to get these done, even though he’s given class time and can finish them for homework. At the end of unit 3, we reviewed all the words for a test next day. Sam was absent that day, missing the review. He was, however, at school the next day for the test. He never asked if he had to take it, or whined and complained as many students do. He took the test. Remember, in addition to missing the review, Sam never wrote the definitions so he didn’t have these to study.
He got the only 100 in the class. He was so proud of himself and his smile was a mile wide as he listened to me go on and on about his grade! He’s got the intelligence to be at the top of his class, and I’ve told him he can be anything he wants to be.
But will he have the support and the resources he needs?
 --Pat Whitley, Scott County

No Place is Immune
You wouldn’t think students would face such issues here in Loudoun County, but at my elementary school, I deal with youngsters who can’t afford to bring in an apple the week we study fruit, trip and stumble because they’re wearing shoes they haven’t grown into yet, don’t have winter coats, and rely on donations through the school system for clothes, school supplies, and even food for weekends.
 --Name withheld by request

Anything We Can Do?
Sadly, these stories are just a snapshot of what’s happening in our classrooms. There are many more. Children in Virginia public schools are hungry, dirty and without access to a lot of life.
 In the face of crushing poverty, you can be left feeling overwhelmed and helpless. There are, however, some steps individuals and small groups can begin to take. First and perhaps foremost, let people know what’s going on—share your own stories freely about how poverty is hampering your students. Most members of the community probably don’t get it, and they need to.
 Press elected officials to make economic justice issues a top priority—issues such as fair and affordable housing, a living wage, readily accessible childcare, and universal healthcare. Work with and support adult literacy programs. Volunteer in programs that reach out to meet community needs.
 It won’t turn the tide by itself, but it can help build momentum. We can help.


Words from Educators in the Know
“Despite the steady rise in the number of children in poverty, current education policy largely ignores this issue. Under the pretense of equity we treat all children the same and hold them to the same standards even though we know some children experience difficulty because they lack support. Genuine equity is premised on a recognition that we must tailor policy to meet the needs of different children, even as we work to ensure positive outcomes for all children.”
--Pedro Noguera, sociologist and professor, New York University

“As an elementary school teacher, I can assure you that I had students who came into my classroom without having eaten anything since lunch the previous day.”
 --Princess Moss, NEA Secretary-Treasurer and former VEA president
“When we look at the schools in our division that are struggling, there’s a direct correlation with the percentage of students in poverty.”
--Marcus J. Newsome, superintendent, Chesterfield County Public Schools

“Schools alone simply cannot provide the services, supports and opportunities that children and families need to overcome the effects of concentrated poverty.”

--Jeanne Jehl, Senior Consultant, Annie E. Casey Foundation

“Expecting families living in [poverty] to reach out to schools and effectively support good educational practices at home is simply naïve, and punishing students from such homes for not having studied or completed their homework is not going to give them a better opportunity to achieve success.”
 --Mark Lineburg, Winchester superintendent, and Rex Gearhart, Bristol superintendent, in their book Educating Students in Poverty

For students from generational poverty to learn, a significant relationship must be present. When individuals who made it out of poverty are interviewed, virtually all cite an individual who made a significant difference for them.
 --Ruby K. Payne, author, A Framework for Understanding Poverty

Work for Justice
Is your school plagued by poverty and other issues of inequity? NEA is collecting stories from educators who want to call attention to some of the obstacles their students are facing, because a core principle of the Association is that every student should have a great public school.
 The Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education recently announced it will be focusing on finding, investigating and remedying resource inequities in public schools, districts and states across the country under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To tell you school’s story, visit

Some Sobering Facts
from VEA Research
Some school and poverty facts, from VEA’s “Educational Achievement and Poverty” report:
• On statewide third-grade reading tests in 2010-11, 90 percent of students who were not economically disadvantaged passed, compared with 74 percent of the disadvantaged students.
• On eighth-grade math tests, the pass rate for economically disadvantaged students was 73 percent, while non-disadvantaged students passed at a rate of 88 percent.
The Commonwealth of Virginia defines economically disadvantaged students as those who are in need of free or reduced lunch programs, Medicaid or Temporary Aid for Needy Families, or those who are homeless or migrants.




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