The Rapidian

GRPS: The Effect of Poverty on Educational Attainment

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Program cutbacks, schools closures, and desperate economic times, and the children who are left in the middle.

Program cutbacks, schools closures, and desperate economic times, and the children who are left in the middle. /Photo by Joshua Fik

Student and family poverty negatively effects educational proficiency and children ability to learn.

Written by: Joshua Fik, Daina Salayon, Kenny Spicer, Bob Hutek; Frederik Meijer Honors College; Grand Valley State University.

In the midst of hard economic times and the scramble to piece together a state budget comes the looming fear of funding cuts and program closures. One of the most serious controversies in the state budget is educational funding, and the cuts that are on the table are significant. Grand Rapids Public School district has discussed closing three buildings to lessen the potential budget gap.

School closings and other efforts to address the budget gap will place special burdens on programs that aid disadvantaged students, and specifically those students who come from an economically disadvantaged home life.  Given the connection between poverty and educational attainment, these burdens are particularly concerning.

In 2008, the percentage of elementary students statewide who were proficient for their grade level in math and reading was 85.3% and 83.7%, respectively. That same year, the school-wide proficiency average for GRPS elementary schools was 68.4% for math and 60.8% for reading. In the Grand Rapids Public School District, 84.7% of students are considered economically disadvantaged, as opposed to the statewide 41.2%. Examining economically disadvantaged students' scores in GRPS shows them to have a lower proficiency than the general student population: 66.8% for math and 59.4 % for reading.

Students who are economically disadvantaged compose a large portion of students who are “at-risk learners”, meaning that they have a high probability of academic failure and the possibility of eventually dropping out of school.  Of primary concern is the steadily increasing number of students fitting this description.  Intervention programs are expensive, but not as expensive as the costs of long term failure, which include children being retained in grade levels, requiring special education, or dropping out of school altogether.

Poverty forces a wedge between parents and their children. Children who live in homes of poverty often live with single parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet or both parents who work long hours away from home, leaving the children with virtually no supervision. A parent who works multiple jobs rarely has the time to become actively involved in his/her children’s education.  While this is hardly the fault of the parent, studies show there is an important relationship between parental involvement and a child’s educational motivations.

Students exhibit more effort, concentration and attention when their parents are involved in the educational process, which leads to a greater interest in learning and higher perceived competence. Lack of parental involvement leads to a lack in the student’s desire to learn, which generally leads to a lack of regular school attendance, putting the child further behind in school. According to Our Community's Children, in the 2001-2002 school year, 34% of elementary students in GRPS had at least 13 absences.

Aside from lack of motivation, students lack the mental capacity to deal with the stress of poverty as well as the stress of school. When it comes down to it, the hardships of attempting to survive will always outweigh the importance of a reading assignment. Our Community's Children recognizes that children in poverty often worry about if they will eat, where they will sleep, and other issues that force school to take a backseat.

Programming that works effectively to combat shortcomings in student proficiency needs to exist at every level of schooling.  The earlier a program begins, however, the greater its impact on a student’s success. If prevention of early learning deficits occurs, there is less of a chance of future failures and the need for intervention at higher grade-levels. It is easy to argue that reading is the most critical of basic skills for educational success. Children who cannot read at or above their grade level will almost certainly experience difficulty in all other areas of learning, as reading is a necessary component of all other school subjects. Research has also shown that failure to maintain reading proficiency upon reaching the upper elementary level is associated with significantly higher risks of not graduating from school, early pregnancy, delinquency, and other problems.

The overwhelming number of disadvantaged students and households in the city in and of itself presents community organizations, as well as the schools, with the unique challenge of providing for families and their students who struggle with basic needs. Placed on top of that endeavor is the district’s lean budget. This concern for these students is one that schools and community organizations recognize, and are taking steps and creating supporting programs to address. These programs offer supportive tutoring for students outside of school hours, provide family mentoring services, and even provide before and after-school meals for students who may otherwise go without a meal.

In order to address this issue GRPS has a few programs in place, though they are under threat by budget cuts. The goal of the government funded Title 1 services that GRPS receives is to address the academic challenges of children who come from homes of poverty. Title 1 provides schools that have a large number of children below the poverty level with more funding in order to address the needs of those children. It is up to the schools to determine how to spend these funds to best aid students. In order to bridge the gap between educational attainments of poverty-stricken children with the other children, this limited amount of money is used in a variety of ways, including more books for the classroom and further investment in before/after school programs.

Studies show that book-rich classrooms are key to improving reading comprehension, especially coupled with at-home support. GRPS also has grants that support reading mentoring programs, after-school programs, school lunch and breakfast programs, special education services, etc. Early education programs that are most effective generally include small class sizes, parental involvement, well-compensated and educated teachers, and extended exposure to the program. This is not generally the case with under-funded and over-burdened school districts.

Even busy parents can do some things to strengthen their involvement, including simply having more books in the house, which can be attained from libraries that will at times have old books set out for free. Teachers can also provide parents with more chances to get involved by holding conferences that align with parents’ work schedules, even if that means meeting during lunch or before or after school hours.

Positive community members that can provide a motivational role in the child’s life can also provide support for parents by helping children with their homework. Numerous community organizations have begun working to provide for students needs where the schools have failed or are unable to provide. Local organizations have begun to aid schools in providing tutoring, giving students before and afterschool meals, and mentoring families to help them with things such as budgeting and home repairs.

The solution to the educational needs of our children is multifaceted. We cannot simply rely on or expect that our school systems will be able to meet or satisfy the unique needs of every student. First, our educational systems need adequate funding as well as other forms of support for programs that aid students outside of the traditional classroom. Second, parents need to support their child’s education through whatever means possible. Finally, the community has a responsibility to support the parents by enabling them to support their children, as well as the responsibility to aid directly in the upbringing of the next generation.

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