Addressing Barriers Related to Poverty and Education

By Mariah McCune

Introduction

When I began teaching at my current school ten years ago, about 20% of my student population was on free and reduced lunch.  Over the last decade, that number has ballooned into almost 40%.  Discussions about poverty and income inequality have become regular topics in my professional development cycle, and the trend does not appear to be stopping anytime soon.

The pandemic has brought to the forefront concerns over income inequality and poverty in the United States. With rising rates of joblessness and an economic recession, woes over household income and demands for government relief have risen too. These effects have sent ripples through our nation’s children, creating shockwaves in the schools they attend.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, half of American public schools had 50% or more of their student population on free and reduced lunch programs in 2017. This number usually serves as a proxy for estimating the number of children living at or below the poverty line.

These statistics are cause for concern within schools because, as Nick Hanauer observes, “Poverty creates obstacles that would trip up even the most naturally gifted student.” As more students fall into poverty, more obstacles arise. 

Identifying Obstacles

One catch phrase gaining traction in educational circles is “Maslow before Bloom.” This synthesizes the belief that we must address basic human needs before a student can learn. At the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are necessities like food, shelter, and sleep. For many students living at or below the poverty line, these necessities are beyond reach.

For students in poverty, food insecurity dominates much of the processing power in their brains. Instead of concentrating on math class, they are thinking about when they will eat again and trying to ignore the hunger pains in their gut. When those students go home, they arrive in living conditions that are unclean, unsafe, and/or crowded. Worse still, they often cannot find a quiet, private place to rest in these conditions, resulting in sleep deprivation.

Even when all of these barriers to education are addressed, still more obstacles stand in the way. Their living conditions coupled with lack of access to healthcare means that they often suffer from poor overall health. This leads to increased school absences, which widens the learning gap between poor and affluent students over time.

Also contributing to that learning gap is a lack of academic role models in the household. Many times the parents of impoverished children lack adequate educational foundations themselves. This means that they are unable to help their children with homework, pay for academic tutors, or even understand why academic success should be made a priority.

Offering Solutions

Poverty paints a bleak picture, but schools can be proactive in addressing some of these concerns. Carey Wright, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education, says it best: “children [in poverty] can learn at the highest levels, but you have to provide for them.”

Many schools already do a phenomenal job addressing hunger concerns. They leverage federal and state monies for free and reduced lunches and breakfasts and participate in backpack programs to sustain students over the weekend. Ensuring that students are adequately fed is an excellent first step.

Schools can also create partnerships with local dentists’ and doctors’ offices to arrange annual visits and perform annual health exams. There are limitations with regards to schools and health care, but these basic preventative measures can help maintain student’s long-term health and well-being.

Schools can also create comfort closets where students go to receive toiletries like toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, deodorant, and feminine hygiene products to take home with them. This can reinforce the importance of proper hygiene and give students resources to maintain their own personal health and wellness at home.

Finally, schools can consider providing targeted intervention classes, after hours programs, and tutoring services to address the academic needs of impoverished students. These interventions should include explicitly teaching students basic hygiene practices like hand washing and teeth brushing; showing students how to take notes, time manage, study for tests, and ask for help in the classroom; and finally targeting learning gaps that have resulted from missed instruction. Closing these gaps can help motivate students to stay in school once they know that learning is attainable.

A final word

There is no silver bullet when it comes to addressing childhood poverty, and the list of solutions above is merely the tip of the iceberg. One of the most frustrating things is that these interventions introduce only gradual change to education poverty. However, gradual and incremental change over time will eventually lead to positive outcomes. Schools cannot change the world over night, but they can create systemic change that will benefit future students for generations to come.


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