New Orleans City Business, June 24, 2008: ‘Deep poverty۪ limiting student performance

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by Stephen Maloney Staff Writer

Editor’s note: The following is Part One of a two-part series on the two most significant factors influencing New Orleans public school students: poverty and violence.

NEW ORLEANS – When Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas was preparing to take over state-run New Orleans public schools in June 2007, the career educator sought the advice of experienced local leaders on how to approach his new job.

Having run the Chicago and Philadelphia school districts, which have many students living in poverty, Vallas expressed confidence in his ability to handle his new job with former New Orleans Mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu.

“I went over to his (Landrieu۪s) house one night and someone asked me to compare school districts and I talked about the poverty rates being comparable,” Vallas said. “Moon turned to me and said, There۪s poverty and then there۪s Southern poverty deep poverty.۪”

With more than three-quarters of Louisiana۪s public school students classified as low income, the specter of poverty is casting a dark shadow across the state۪s educational landscape. Educational leaders say poor economic conditions severely limit student performance, creating a domino effect that can drag down a state or region۪s economy.

“On every major demographic and educational indicator, low-income students start behind, stay behind and fall behind,” said Steve Suitts, Southern Education Foundation vice president. “As a nation, we still haven۪t really come to grips with this problem and what it means for education.”

In the South, the number of low-income students has ballooned in the past four decades: 54 percent of the region۪s 50.1 million public school students are now classified as low-income, according to a new SEF report, “A New Majority, Low Income Students in the South۪s Public Schools.”

According to federal regulations, a family of two with an annual income of less than $14,000 lives below the poverty line and qualities for the free or reduced lunch program.

Low-income students are two to three times more likely to drop out of high school than more affluent students, Suitts said, wreaking havoc on the economy as unskilled dropouts hit the job market.

“There۪s nothing that will be more decisive in forecasting the economic health of Louisiana and the other Southern states than how well the states meet the challenge of educating this new majority,” he said.

Vallas said more than 85 percent of the RSD۪s student population qualifies for the federal free or reduced lunch program, a major indicator of a student۪s economic status.

“The higher the concentrations of poverty, the greater the challenges,” Vallas said. “In part, it certainly puts an added burden on the school systems that do not necessarily have the means to meet that burden.”

Addressing the issue of student poverty has been one of the RSD۪s most important tasks, Vallas said.

The key to winning the battle against poverty in the classroom is early intervention, he said.

“There۪s no more effective way to attack the challenges of poverty than universal early childhood education,” Vallas said.

Providing low-income students with the same level of education as more affluent students has to happen early and that extra effort must be maintained throughout a student۪s career for the negative effects of poverty to be canceled out, Suitts said.

One of the underlying problems preventing adequate help from getting to impoverished students is the difficulty teachers can have determining the exact needs of each student, S.J. Green Charter School Principal Tony Recasner said.

Ninety-eight percent of Green Charter۪s 325 students qualify for free lunch, but no two students have the same set of economic challenges to overcome, Recasner said.

“A lot of what happens is a function of the parent, typically a mother,” he said. “The child۪s behavior and achievement in school is largely related to mom۪s aspirations and mom۪s circumstances.”

A single mother working more than one job to make ends meet will more often than not have difficulty getting her child to school on time every day, resulting in a gap in the student۪s education, Recasner said.

In addition, the same overworked mother will seldom have time to help her child with homework or with a difficult assignment, further limiting classroom achievement.

“The way we best understand a student۪s achievement and behavior in school is really by getting as good an understanding as we can of their mother۪s circumstances,” Recasner said. “Socioeconomic status is probably the biggest factor in determining the school success of children.”

Despite almost overwhelming odds, some low-income students are succeeding thanks to the extra work put in by city school leaders.

At the three Knowledge is Power Program schools in New Orleans KIPP Believe College Prep, KIPP McDonogh 15 and KIPP Central City Academy 93 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, KIPP spokesman Jonathan Bertsch said.

KIPP۪s 2,300 students continue to outperform state averages on standardized tests despite the economic hardships faced outside of the classroom.

Eighth-grade KIPP students outperformed the state and RSD average on the 2008 Louisiana Educational Assessment Program, or LEAP, test in all subject categories, Bertsch said, proving low-income students can succeed.

“There are a lot of things that can correlate with income, but for us the greatest indicator of academic success is going to be the school environment and the teaching that۪s going on in there,” Bertsch said.•

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