The Challenge Of Poverty/Beating The Odds

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Schooling takes place in the context of the socio-economic realities of the times and Payson is certainly no exception.

The demographic changes in our student population over the last several years have been exceptional by any standard of measurement and these changes have and will continue to challenge our teachers, schools and district.

Understanding these changes is crucial in being prepared to meet the challenges.

At the end of 2006, 34 percent of our students qualified for the National School Lunch Program.

Students qualify for the program based on the reported income of the parent(s). That 2006 percentage in Payson was well below the state average at the time. In the years that have followed, and particularly in the last three years, that percentage has increased dramatically.

This year, 71 percent of our students qualify, which means we are now significantly above the state average.

In 2006 there were 72 students in PUSD identified as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento guidelines. In 2011, 500 students have been identified. That’s 21 percent of our student population.

The significant majority of these students are “doubled-up” with family or friends due to economic hardship. While we can’t prove that the two statistics are connected, I think most of us would agree that many more of Payson’s families are struggling to just get by.

Lastly, while our overall student enrollment has decreased from 2,804 to 2,439 (13 percent decline), the number of special education students has increased from 392 to 427. The latter number is now 18 percent of our student enrollment.

I have had the opportunity to teach in one of the most affluent school districts in the United States and also at one of the poorest schools in Arizona. Never, however, have I seen such a dramatic shift in demographics, as what we have experienced in Payson over the last several years.

Both national and international studies have consistently shown the association between socio-economic measures and academic outcomes. For example, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessed the reading skills of grade 4 students in 35 countries. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) assessed reading, math and science scores of 15-year-old children in 43 countries. At these two different stages of schooling, there was a significant relationship between Socio-Economic Status (SES) and educational measure in all countries.

The negative effects of poverty on all levels of school success have been widely demonstrated and accepted; the critical question for us as a caring community is, can these effects be prevented or reversed?

Yes.

Research also shows that data-driven interventions can make a significant impact.

We began such a program, Response to Intervention (RTI) three years ago in our elementary schools. We are now moving forward with RTI at the secondary levels, based on the success we have had with our elementary students.

Next week, the state releases the new A-F Performance Labels for districts and schools. I believe these will validate the effectiveness of our RTI program.

As more and more of our students and their parents labor to get through this very difficult economy, our responsibility as educators is to accept the realities we face and continually seek ways for our kids to achieve.

A commitment to a research-based program of reading and math interventions will be crucial if we are to continue to “beat the odds.”

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