Poverty presents a variety of disadvantages for children in the classroom.
A study conducted this year by a psychologist at Stanford University found that affluent children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households.
Students below the poverty line are often less prepared for school than their wealthier counterparts, according to Luz Baez, director of grant management and programs for School District 300 in Carpentersville. But the bigger issue, Baez said, isn’t that students are coming to school without supplies or their homework; they’re coming to school without food.
“We know that children who are not well fed, they don’t have access to a myriad of things,” she said. “They will come to school in basically survival mode.”
Schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment are eligible for Title I funding, a federal grant that assists schools with low-income students. There are six schools in District 300 that draw at least 75 percent of their students from low-income households. Some are as high as 90 percent.
Title I funding has allowed District 300 to invest in a number of programs aimed at assisting students in poverty, including an extended summer school program, an extended kindergarten program and parent involvement activities, which help keep parents connected to what’s happening in their child’s school and teaches them how to become more involved. And some schools offer English as a second language and GED classes for parents through Elgin Community College.
District 300 also has reading programs and preschools specifically designated for children of poverty.
“We make use of every grant we get,” Baez said.
As important as it is for children and their parents to have the resources they need to succeed at school, teachers also need the tools to better educate children from low-income families. Eight years ago, District 200 schools in Woodstock hired a consulting group that issued poverty training to all teachers, and the training has continued since then with each new teacher hired.
The training focused on providing teachers better ways to work with poorer students and families, and to try and find the root cause for why a student might be struggling in school.
“If students aren’t returning homework or a long-term project, rather than punishing the student, dig deeper and find out what’s happening with the family,” said George Oslovich, District 200 assistant superintendent. “It’s really a great strategy for any family.”
The poverty training also involved increased vocabulary work with children from low-income families. Teachers were encouraged to develop thinking strategies to help students draw connections from what they are reading and to expose them to words in context of what they read.
“In a general sense, the opportunities that are available to students with working, single parents aren’t the same [as more affluent students],” Oslovich said. “Those students might not have had the experience of going to the museum, zoo or movies … That’s where vocabulary gets built.
“[Poorer] families are making sure they have food on the table, and their kids have clothes and shelter. They don’t have time to do some of those things.”
Oslovich said the poverty training at District 200 – which has six Title I schools – has been an asset to the entire school, regardless of poverty level. Teachers are more interested in why students are underperforming, and they have the resources available to help them.
“The training taught us to really understand who the student is before you start designing interventions for the kid,” Oslovich said. “That goes beyond income level. Because of this training, we’ve gotten better at looking at who the children are and what are their needs, academically and beyond.”