Schools & poverty

It might not seem like it at first glance, but an elaborate treehouse sculpture hanging in a stairwell at Belpre Elementary School is actually an example of how the district tries to help students living in poverty.

The sculpture, created by local artist Geoff Schenkel with design input from students, was part of an artist-in-residence program in 2012. It was an opportunity to get up close and personal with the arts that not every student would have outside of school, said Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn.

“Typically, those experiences that lead kids to be ready for school are not there for families that are living in poverty,” he said, pointing to examples like trips to museums, zoos, the ballet or family vacations. “We try to bring as many cultural experiences as we can into the school or we take kids on field trips.”

The link between poverty and academic performance is hardly a revelation to school officials, but an analysis of the most recent state report cards by groups representing Ohio school boards, administrators and treasurers has shined a spotlight on it once again.

The review showed the 123 school districts classified by the Ohio Department of Education as suburban had the highest scores on the report cards’ performance index, measuring how well students performed on state testing, along with the highest average income and lowest poverty rates, according to a release from the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Association of School Business Officials and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators.

In Washington County, poverty rates range from 33.9 percent in the Warren Local school district to 59.71 percent for Frontier Local Schools, based on participation in the federal free and reduced lunch program and number of people living in the district. Performance index scores go from just over 90 for Belpre City Schools (51.36 percent poverty rate) to nearly 100 for Wolf Creek Local (36.98 percent), which falls closely along the lines of the average correlation between the measures according to the analysis.

To new Warren Local Superintendent Kyle Newton, the analysis serves as more evidence that the state’s much-maligned school funding system needs further refinement.

“What it essentially says to me is this: When you’re in a rural school (district) with high poverty, which is what we are, you have to be treated differently by the state,” he said. “They’re trying to put us all in the same box.”

Like Dunn, Newton said poverty impacts the experiences a child has and their readiness for school. His sister teaches kindergarten in a suburban school district in the Cleveland area and “every one of her students can read when she gets them,” he said.

But for some local kindergartners that is not the case, and teachers must work with those who can’t read as well as those who already can, Newton said.

While it’s not true in every circumstance, lower income can be an indicator of lower levels of education, said New Matamoras Elementary Principal Bill Wotring.

“Language development is a critical (factor) for young children,” he said. “Language development can be delayed in homes where there isn’t an appreciation of languages, of reading to the children, storytelling.”

Fort Frye Local Superintendent Stephanie Starcher said schools cannot control external factors like poverty, so they must focus on what they can impact.

“We need to focus on making at least a year’s growth in a year’s time, and if we do that, our achievement scores will go up,” she said.

As a principal for 12 years in the Warren Local district and now as a superintendent, Starcher said she and teachers she worked with would talk to families about the importance of early educational opportunities and encourage them to pursue preschool options like programs that offer a sliding fee scale or federally funded Head Start.

When children come in at different levels of learning and struggle with particular subjects, teachers must differentiate their instruction, said Ruth Kunze, director of curriculum and technology for Marietta City Schools. That means giving some students more time on some concepts while letting others work ahead.

“We try to focus extra attention on those students, so they meet the goals (like) the other students,” Kunze said. “All children that need extra support, we tend to differentiate the instruction,” regardless of income level.

One way to provide that extra attention is with Title I teachers. Federal Title I funds are directed to assist low-income families, but when a school’s free-and-reduced-lunch rate is high enough, the services are offered to all students.

Three of Marietta’s elementary schools fall into that category, as do all of Fort Frye and Frontier’s.

Starcher said the intervention can come in the form of one-on-one or small-group instruction or another teacher working in the classroom to assist students who need help.

“We tend to try to focus as much as possible on early intervention in K through three,” Starcher said.

The effects of poverty go beyond factors that link directly to academics. Wotring noted the free and reduced lunch program itself is a way to assist students in need, making sure they’re properly fed during the school day. And many districts link that eligibility to reductions or waivers of certain fees, so students and families don’t struggle in that regard.

Starcher said she was disappointed when the Washington County Children Services levy was rejected by voters last year. Some of the nearly $1.6 million a year it was to have generated would have helped fund social workers at the county’s schools.

Children living in poverty “need much more than just educational support; they need social services,” Starcher said. “We just can’t afford it, and children services doesn’t have the funds.”