Poverty and Our Public Schools


I chose to make my career in public education and I have become a fierce defender of it as a democratic institution.  I worked as a special educator with children who have severe disabilities for over thirty years.  Federal law guarantees all children a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment.  FAPE in the LRE—those are the acronyms every special education teacher candidate has memorized for midterms and term papers. These are promises made to students who have special needs, i.e. student who have disabilities, or medical or psychological conditions that affect academic performance.  Lately I’m thinking we need to make sure these promises are extended to all students, particularly those who are growing up in generational poverty.

As a teacher of students with severe disabilities, I most often worked in schools in impoverished neighborhoods, because that’s where the district put my class.  For all you Sacramentans reading this, know that the classes for students with visual impairments were in Land Park (big mansions on Land Park Drive), the classes for students with hearing impairments were in the Fab Forties (that’s the neighborhood where the Reagan family lived when he was governor).  My class was next to the federal housing project.

I’m not complaining; I’m just making an observation.  Truth be told, I always loved the schools where they put my classes.  I loved the neighborhoods too. My students and I often went out and strolled around these neighborhoods.  I always felt safe.

I want to tell you about a couple of women I worked with at this school near the housing project.  One of them lived with her family in the housing project, the other one aspired to live there.  Apparently the housing project complex seemed nicer and safer than where she was currently living with her children.

I have hesitated to talk about these women because I’m afraid people will think I’m a bigot.  We live in a bigoted culture, and although I don’t want to be a bigot, I suppose it is inevitable that I may reflect that.   Nonetheless, I think it’s important that I let go of my fear of judgment and speak my truth.

These women were both assigned to assist me in my classroom.  One was a hard worker, the other was a very hard worker.  One couldn’t spell very simple words, so I found out early on that I couldn’t ask her to write anything on the board lest I embarrass her.  Both seemed woefully ignorant of facts that are generally considered “common knowledge.”  For example, one approached me one day and said that a friend had told her it was winter in South America when it was summer up here.  “That can’t be right, can it?” she asked.  “Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

The other woman expressed great surprise when I mentioned one day that Seattle and Sacramento were in the same time zone.  In fact, she didn’t seem to have a firm grip on the entire concept of time zones.

I’m not saying these women are stupid.  I’m saying that they and their families have been living in poverty for generations, and public education has not been able to change that.  In fact it would appear that their schooling has been so inadequate that they may have huge gaps in knowledge.

I don’t want to generalize here.  Not every person living in poverty has these issues.  But my guess is that enough of them do—and that is why this poverty is often generational.  These women and many more like them were the parents of the students at our school.  These are the moms who will be helping our students with their homework.

When I was growing up, if I had a question, my parents had the answer or they knew where to go, which book to consult, to find the answer.  My parents read to me and with me.  They set a good example by reading themselves.  They subscribed to two newspapers and more than one magazine.  There were lively discussions of current events at the dinner table.  It was an intellectually stimulating atmosphere.  I am sorry if I sound prejudiced, but I don’t think this is happening in the homes of these women I used to work with.  I don’t think they can provide this for their children.  And quite frankly our public schools cannot fill this gap.  We are not giving our schools the resources to fill this gap.

To all well-meaning middle class people who have no experience with poverty, what I’m trying to say is this:  poverty doesn’t just mean that you have less money.  When you’ve grown up in this kind of poverty, it’s as if you’ve been deprived of a huge piece of our culture.

I have no answers, no easy solutions, but this is how I feel:  children of middle class and upper middle class families will be fine for the most part.  Their parents will look out for them and their schooling.  Children of poverty need more.  I would love to see every classroom in impoverished neighborhoods with a very small student to teacher ratio:  I’m talking no more than twelve to one, and in fact I’d like to put a couple of aides in there with that teacher.  That’s right:  twelve students, a teacher and two aides.  That was my class size limit in one school district for a classroom of students with severe disabilities, and it worked okay for us.  Imagine if we could give that to these kids.  I know most people will think this is ridiculous, even my fellow teachers will say, no, that’s not necessary.  I say, we all know there’s an achievement gap.  Let’s not waste money on new textbooks or testing materials or scripted curricula or some fancy new way to chart all that data.  Let’s just give these kids more attention!  Take them out on lots of field trips so they can have real experiences.  Then they’ll have something real to write about.  Have them write about everything:  science and math and family stories and current events.  As a writer myself, I’m a big fan of getting kids to write.

Some of those kids at the housing project—going to school just a few block south of Broadway on 4th street, barely twelve blocks or so from the State Capitol—some of them would point to the high rises on Capitol Mall and say, “What are those?”  I had a student once—we were watching a Christmas-themed movie and it was snowing in the story and this kid turned to me and said “Ms Schoellkopf, how comes it never snows in the real world?”  Can you believe that?  Is there anything more dear than that?  These kids need so much.

What is happening today in public education makes me so sad that I up and left.  I am telling these stories as a way of lighting a candle.  Maybe someone else will see this light and find a way to help.  I don’t know what to do anymore.

16 thoughts on “Poverty and Our Public Schools

  1. I am going to share this with my friend who is the principal for an inner-city school in LA. Well said, Nancy!

  2. Thanks for writing this thoughtful article. Right now the tide is running against public education here in Philadelphia, and I don’t know yet what is going to turn it around. But we have to keep asserting its value and fighting for it, as you’re doing here.

  3. I know exactly what you’re talking about having taught at the same school with you. One of my favorite memories is when, for some reason, we got extra money to take a bunch of classes to San Francisco. We went to the museums and to the beach, which many had never been to. I used to always be struck by the fact that most of them had never seen the ocean. Anyway, one of my students looked up at me while we were at the beach and said, “This feels so good.” I knew exactly what she meant. I only wish all of them could feel the ocean.

  4. Nancy you are not being bigoted. What you describe was my experience growing up. My family qualified for public assistance many times (not continuously because Dad did have a good paying job when the economy was good). I say “qualified” because we never were on public assistance due to Dad’s pride but we were below poverty level for at least 3/4 of my childhood. I never had a jacket until I bought my first one in high school. I never went to a museum or even the library with my mother or father. My first trip to a museum was when I was 13 and Mom dropped us kids off at the Museum of Science in Los Angeles to play for a day. I knew about the ocean because we could walk to the beach (I was about 3 miles and we never went with our parents) but I did not know anything about snow until we moved to the Sierra Nevada my freshman year of high school when Dad could not find work in Los Angeles. It wasn’t that my parents did not care. Mom read a lot and encouraged us to read but she did not have time to go to the library or anywhere else with us. That I succeeded in going to college still amazes me.

    Poverty is caused by lack of access to good education. When a smart poor child ‘succeeds’ it is against incredible odds. No one would expect middle class or rich children to succeed against these odds. When a poor child escapes poverty and makes a success of herself/himself we ask why more poor children cannot do the same. Poor children that do not escape the cycle of poverty are seen to be not as smart or not as motivated as middle class and rich children. But the reality is that poor children who escape poverty have to be smarter and be more driven than middle class and rich children to achieve the same goal.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, Nancy. I want to emphasize something you mentioned: it’s not that your parents didn’t care. Families living in poverty love their children and want them to succeed, but they may not have the skills, and they certainly don’t have the resources to help them succeed. I also saw a lot of fund raisers fail at schools in poor neighborhoods. Not too many parents had the money to buy the raffle tickets and boxes of candy, etc. We really need to give these schools more, or we’re perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

  5. Nancy, I really liked your article about poverty and public education. What are your thoughts on Michelle Rhee? I think she is narcissistic … she spent three years in the classroom and now believes she is the solution to problems facing our educational system. What an insult !!

    1. I’m so glad you liked my article. Michelle Rhee is the public face of the corporate-backed movement to privatize public education. Charter schools are able to choose their students, rejecting any that don’t meet academic and/or behavioral standards, whereas public schools provide a free education to ALL children and teens. The vast majority of charter schools are also union-free, meaning the administrators may choose which teachers to hire and fire. And yet charter schools, on average, are performing no better than public schools! Given their advantages they should be outperforming us lowly peons in the public schools by leaps and bounds!

      Unfortunately Michelle Rhee decided to “marry” the “mayor” of my hometown. Check out this very scary article published this morning in our local newspaper the Sacramento Bee. http://www.sacbee.com/2013/06/30/5534449/sacramento-mayor-kevin-johnson.html#disqus_thread

      Mayor Johnson’s spokesperson is very very naive if he truly believes that an issue like education is not political. The Bee is remiss in not pointing out that Johnson’s wife Rhee is one of the most controversial figures in American politics today.

  6. Readers, please check out Robert Mann’s blog on what’s happening in Louisiana schools; the link is above. Thank you for giving my post a shout out, Mr. Mann!

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