Des Moines Register (Iowa), July 30, 2008: Opinion: Challenge poverty

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Science teacher Anita Dutta arrived from India in 2001,assuming that in a rich country like this, everyone went to college. So she wassurprised, on taking a job at ScavoAlternativeHigh Schoolin Des Moines,to find few students there did.

For years, Dutta, who chairs Scavo’s science department,grappled with how to change that. She found her answer on a recent trip to India.

Scavo’s students end up there because they haven’t beensuccessful in traditional school settings, or because they need moreflexibility. By age 18, some are raising several children. Some have been infoster care or juvenile detention. Some have been homeless, or gotten mixed upwith gangs or drugs – or have parents who have.

And then there’s money: 81 percent of Scavo’s 395 studentsare low-income. When you’re struggling on your own financially, the prospect ofpaying for college, or being out of the work force to attend classes, mightseem frivolous – especially when your parents didn’t go.

But that’s the saddest, most paradoxical part. Abachelor’s degree increases your earning power, yet only a stunning 6 percentof low-income people in America get one, according to the I Have a DreamFoundation. Those who most need the extra leg up that higher education bringsalso have the least chance of getting it. Even very smart Scavo students mayhave little motivation to take college-readiness programs.

This is where Dutta looked for inspiration to the Third World, and found it in the work of Nobel PeacePrice winner Muhammad Yunus. Yunus founded the Grameen Bank, which makes”microcredit” loans to the rural poor of Bangladesh to start smallbusinesses. The results have been phenomenal: $7.12 billion has been loanedsince 1976, of which $6.36 billion has been repaid. The bank now has 2,517branches. Borrowers are 97 percent female.

Why not invest in youth as one would a business, thoughtDutta, extending credit to Scavo students to build their futures? The result isa grant proposal she’s written for a “Learn and Earn” program, whichwould allow Scavo students to earn money credits toward college by doing wellin high school. They’d get “paid” for attending class regularly,enrolling in AP or college-credit classes, scoring well on the ACTs or doingextracurricular activities. Each activity carries a dollar value. For example,going on a field trip is worth $5, but failing to complete a class on timeresults in a $1 deduction per week.

The kids don’t see the money but manage their ownaccounts. The savings are turned over as college scholarships when they finishhigh school. If they don’t enroll in college within two years, they forfeit it.

Dutta is approaching local corporations and hopes to raise$60,000 for the first year.

Other learning programs have used material incentives -from the private, tutoring Sylvan Learning Centers to the national I Have ADream program launched in Harlem in 1981 byphilanthropist Eugene Lang. There, donors pledge to pay the college tuitions ofmiddle-school students who stay in school and graduate.

Dutta says money isn’t the motivation; the challenge andsupport the kids get provide that.

America is a rich country – for some. Last year, CEOs in theStandard & Poor’s 500 made a median income of $8.4 million apiece. But theincome gap is widening: 37 million people are trapped in poverty,much of it cycled through generations. To address that, we have to startleveling the playing field between the educated and the under-educated. And asDutta knows, the groundwork has to be laid long before graduation. Her planoffers more than money; it would give some of the most neglected a fightingchance.

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