The New Southern Reality: Poverty in the Classroom

bookharvest_logo_centeredBY GINGER YOUNG      The Southern Education Fund published a report last week entitled “A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South and Nation”. The findings shared in this report are sobering, if not shocking: whereas poor children in public schools were the majority in only four of the 50 states in the year 2000, they are now the majority in 17 states, including every state in the South.

This is the new reality: classrooms in which more than half of the students are coming from homes that are economically vulnerable. These students may be food insecure, they may have parents struggling to find work, they may be dealing with unstable housing. These children are our neighbors.

This sharp spike in poverty among students is disturbing news for North Carolina and every other state throughout the South. Poverty is associated with:

  • inadequate kindergarten readiness: 48% — less than half — of all five-year-olds in poverty are school-ready, compared to 75% of their higher-income peers.
  • summer learning loss: the Campaign for Grade Level Reading reports that low-income elementary students lag 2 ½ to 3 years behind their peers in reading by fifth grade. They lose skills over the vulnerable weeks of summer at a higher rate than kids who have summer enrichments such as access to books; once behind, it is very, very hard to catch back up.
  • significantly higher dropout rates: students in the lowest 20% of family income are five times more likely to drop out than students in the highest 20%.

Unless we find ways to compensate for the heavy academic toll poverty extracts from our youngest citizens, the educational outcomes they face will drag them, and all of us, down.

This drag is addressable. Despite North Carolina’s current inhospitable legislative climate, abysmal investment in public education (we ranked 45th in the nation in per-student spending, according to the 2010 Census), and cuts to early childhood programs, each of us can take simple, straightforward steps to help our underserved children succeed academically. Among them:

Become a mentor. Touching the life of one child directly can change that child’s life for the better – as well as your own. We are fortunate that North Carolina has dozens of excellent mentoring programs. Simply go to the site to access the mentoring directory.

Volunteer at your local public school. As the activist website GOOD said this spring,

Want to transform public schools in your community? Sure, they need strong leadership and awesome teachers, but they also need community involvement. Go knock on the door of your local school, find out what they need, and help ’em out.

Pretty straightforward!

Donate your new and gently used children’s books. There is no magic bullet in helping our low-income kids keep up with their more affluent peers — but this one comes incredibly close. Books fuel academic success – yet the average number of books in a low income child’s home is 0-2. By contrast, the average number of books in middle and upper income households is 54 – 199.

If we can raise the number of books in the homes of low-income kids up to the levels of their peers, magic will happen. Having books in the home is the single biggest predictor of academic success. Growing up with books from birth helps children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn. Once children are in school, providing books to them over the summer slashes summer learning loss significantly. Children growing up amidst books are likely to become adults who graduate from high school, who have critical thinking skills and a lifelong love of reading, and who are productive and contributing members of society.

If you are in the Triangle, you can donate your books to Book Harvest  at any of ten locations. Every donated book ends up in the home of a local low-income child. But this activism can work anywhere in our state. Simply gather books off your own shelves and from friends at your workplace, in your congregation, at your kids’ schools. Bring those books to an under-resourced school in your community, and ask the teachers to share them with their students. Keep the books flowing into their homes, and help give our kids the tools they need to succeed in school and beyond.

The SEF report challenges us all when it says that “the trends of the last decade strongly suggest that little or nothing will change for the better if schools and communities continue to postpone addressing the primary question of education in America today: what does it take and what will be done to provide low income students with a good chance to succeed in public schools?” . With more than half of North Carolina’s students now coming from low-income households, we all face formidable obstacles in giving our kids the quality education they deserve. But we can overcome these obstacles in many ways, large and small, that directly lift up North Carolina’s under-served children and rewrite their prospects for success. And that is good for all of us.

Let’s get to work.

GYjan2012Ginger Young loves to fix problems in the simplest way possible.  In 2011, frustrated by the disconnect between what we know (books in the home are vital to children’s academic success) and what we are doing with that knowledge (not enough), she founded Book Harvest.  In less than three years, the Triangle community has donated more than 200,000 new and gently used children’s books to Book Harvest, and local low-income kids have harvested more than 150,000 of these books to take home and keep for their very own. 

Ginger graduated from Harvard College in 1984 and received her MPA from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1990.  She has three kids of her own, one of whom presently attends high school in Orange County.  Ginger has run a business specializing in Southern self-taught art for more than 20 years.  She is delighted that in founding Book Harvest she has found her way back to the nonprofit sector.




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  1. Mary Andrews

    Ginger,
    You just provided an argument to support both our new teachers and the public schools by expanding Book Harvest’s mission. Love to see some of your books in the Title I classrooms. Just sayin…
    Good essay!
    Mary


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