Birmingham News, January 28, 2008: Poverty gap wide among area students

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News staff writer

Childhood poverty estimates released this month show a sharp divide for metro Birmingham students.

School-age children in Bessemer, Birmingham and Tarrant had poverty rates approaching the levels of Alabama’s impoverished rural Black Belt, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Just a few miles away, students in Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Trussville, Hoover and Shelby County had some of the lowest rates of poverty in the entire state. Mountain Brook had the least poverty out of 132 Alabama school districts, with Vestavia Hills, Trussville, Hoover and Shelby County following, respectively.

No other area of the state shows so great a gap among public school systems operating side by side.

This creates two separate worlds in the classroom.

In Bessemer, Birmingham and Tarrant, teachers face classes in which one of every three students lives below the poverty line. For Shelby County, Hoover, Trussville, Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook, the poverty rates range from one in every 13 schoolchildren for Shelby County to one in every 29 for Mountain Brook.

The poverty level varies depending on the number of adults and school-age children in a household. For a single parent with two children, the poverty level would be $16,242, according to the census. For two parents with two children, it would be $20,516.

“You have to be really careful you don’t make assumptions about people in poverty areas,” said Michael Froning, dean of the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Education. “Some really smart people come out of poverty areas. They behave well; they read well; they do math well.

“There are a lot of negative statistics about poor areas,” he said, “but they don’t mean a thing for any individual child.”

Still, even though completing high school and finishing college is the best way to get out of the cycle of poverty, poverty itself can result in a lack of vision that prevents many families from sending their children to college.

The rate of college participation for 18- to 24-year-olds from poor families has lagged behind those from better-off families for decades, according to Lawrence Gladieux, former executive director for policy analysis with the College Board. The major stumbling blocks are lack of aspiration and academic preparation. Those, more than money, are needed to enter college and succeed there, according to Gladieux.

Such values are formed or lost early in schooling, educators say.

“I want people to know that it’s at second, third and fourth grades that the decisions of whether a child is ever going to college are made,” said Gini Williams, interim director of Cornerstone Schools, a private pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school serving Birmingham children.

Nearly two-thirds of Cornerstone students live in single-parent families. Several have four generations of women living together in one house, none of whom has ever been married, she said.

“We have ongoing efforts at parent education,” Williams said. “We try to help the parents know what his or her child needs to succeed.”

Poverty can change the way that parents and children look at the world, Williams said.

“What you end up with is a sort of hopelessness,” she said. “You live for today, to get food today, to keep heat today … If you live for today, you might just watch TV tonight rather than do your math homework.”

That contrasts with wealthier families, in which much of what is said and done is about working for the future, Williams said.

Froning said it’s important for teachers to have high expectations of their students.

“This expectation is far more important than we considered,” he said. “If you don’t expect top performance out of a kid, and don’t ask for it, why should they?”

The UAB School of Education has a Trust Initiative with Birmingham schools to help teachers promote high levels of student academic achievement. The goal is to cut the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools. Using high expectations is part of that, Froning said.

Birmingham’s rate of poverty among children ages 5 to 17 was 33.3 percent, according to the Census Bureau. This was more than double the poverty rates of two other large systems – Jefferson County, with a rate of 16 percent, and Huntsville, with a rate of 15.1 percent.

Birmingham also exceeded the poverty rates for two other large systems: Mobile County, with 26.5 percent, and Montgomery County, with 22.2 percent.

Fairfield, at 25.1 percent, Midfield, at 21.4 percent, and Leeds, at 20.5 percent, fell into the middle of poverty rankings. Their levels are near the 22.3 percent poverty rate seen for Alabama schoolchildren statewide.

Homewood’s poverty rate of 12.4 percent ranked 124th out of 132 school systems in the state.


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