My introduction to the effects of poverty in an inner city school in Brooklyn came on the day I gave lunch detention to a misbehaving boy in my eighth grade special education class. He had to sit in the special education supervisor’s office and eat a peanut butter sandwich and an apple instead of going to the cafeteria with his classmates.
The supervisor pulled me aside and said, “If you give him lunch detention, he won’t get a hot meal. If he doesn’t get a hot meal at school, he doesn’t get one.”
The boy came from a large family. His father had left them. The previous year, his mother died of cancer. He moved in with his sisters, who had several children of their own. He was classified as having a learning disability but had physical disabilities as well. He had undergone surgery to reconstruct tear ducts so he could cry.
One day, he punched a classmate who was making fun of him. As I sat with him later in the supervisor’s office, he talked haltingly about how tired he was. He had to get up every night to change and feed a newborn in the apartment. He slept on the sofa and never had any privacy. As he talked, a single tear trickled down his cheek.
One of the raging fights in the corporate-driven “school reform” battle is over the question of whether the poverty of students should matter when judging the performance of teachers. The so-called reformers
put the pressure on teachers to undo the effects of poverty or get fired.
Many teachers, myself included, felt deeply betrayed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who came down on the side of these reformers when they cheered a mass firing of teachers in Rhode Island
Others point out that it is extraordinarily difficult for even the best educator to teach a child who is suffering the constant, debilitating effects of poverty. “It really hurts children when they’re hungry, when they’re homeless, when they don’t have access to decent health care,” said former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Dianne Ravitch
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, gave a recent speech on the issue
For all those so-called reformers out there:
Stop trying to convince us that poverty doesn’t matter.
Any teacher or [paraprofessional] who has watched a student’s head drop in fatigue because they’re tired and hungry, knows that poverty matters.
Any educator who notices a child can’t read the board but doesn’t have the money for glasses, knows that poverty matters.
And any educator who determines a child didn’t have access to early childhood education, knows too well that poverty matters.
When you blame teachers for the fates of poor students, you take the heat off government officials who have no earthly idea how to deal with poverty on a systemic level. And poverty impacts the lives of a vast majority of schoolchildren in Atlanta. The school system’s 2010 annual financial report says
: “Three-fourths of APS students qualify for the federal free and reduced priced meals program, based on their family incomes that place them near the poverty line.”
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall told Congress in 2008
: “Almost 36,000 of our 50,000 students live near or below the poverty line.” That was when she was still bragging about Atlanta’s success, before the cheating scandal broke.
When Atlanta school administrators and teachers broke out the erasers and No. 2 pencils to change answers on tests, they wanted to show that Dr. Hall was a miracle worker, driving up test scores of poor kids. Hallelujah! Atlanta’s business class was ecstatic at the prospect of a work force that wasn’t illiterate and a school system that wouldn’t make prospective parents tremble and flee. But it just wasn’t true. Administrators and teachers cheated and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
, bless its heart, exposed them.
The fact is, it’s hard to teach kids who live in poverty, but teachers keep trying. I tried to teach the boy in my class, one of many poor children I’ve encountered since I moved to Brooklyn in 2007.
One day in my English Language Arts class, I assigned a “how-to” article. He scribbled a few words about how to warm a baby bottle. He put his pencil down, then his head. He said it was hard to write. I worked with him, asking him questions and suggesting a word here or there. Eventually, he produced a one-page article. I praised him for it and put it on the bulletin board with the other students’ work. He was proud of himself.
One day, after class, he came up and asked, “How do you spell ‘gorgeous’?” I wrote it out for him and he copied it. I figured he was writing a card or note to a new girl in class. Two years later, at sixteen, he and that girl had their first baby. The mother and baby moved in with the girl’s family. She has ten siblings, all of whom are or have been in special education.
The last I heard, the young father was living in a homeless shelter.
As the Washington Post
education blogger Valerie Strauss puts it
: “Pretending poverty doesn’t matter doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.”Doug Monroe was a senior editor, columnist, and blogger for
Atlanta magazine. He moved to Brooklyn in 2007 as a New York City Teaching Fellow and earned a master’s degree in education from Long Island University.