Poverty and Public School


Written by former Stetson & Associates, Inc. team member, Toni Riester-Wood, Ph.D.

My daughter and I participated in a poverty simulation at Heifer International (Heifer.org) in Perryville, Arkansas. It was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Below I have shared my reflections on the experience. 

Journal Entry:  November 9, 2011

 “This isn’t enough for me – much less our community of 6!” We came back from market with 1 onion, a quarter of a head of cabbage, 1 cup of rice.  It was all that was left that we could afford.  The market also had sodas, chips and candy, but amazingly the junk food held no appeal for the other adult and four teenage community members either.  We built a fire and together prepared our meal.  Cooking oil and spices also held new meaning and value as we used a tiny bit of each and saved the rest.  We divided the scant portion into 6 equal servings, sat close together in a warm huddle and ate with our fingers.  I wasn’t full, but I was satisfied – I had something in my stomach.   

I have never really had to know the true feeling of “hunger” and while uncomfortable, I knew this simulation would end.  I had not eaten much since breakfast yesterday, thanks to a stinging lunch lesson.   Earlier in the day our village was invited to a luncheon whereby we were allowed inside in order of our “place” in the economic strata; my group was considered last or the “lower”.  Upon entering, all that was left for the six of us were two slices of tomato and a heel from a loaf of bread.  I thought, “How many times have I thrown away the heels…?”  Others who had the privilege of going in before us offered what they had not eaten – parts of sandwiches with mayonnaise, meat, lettuce; crumbs of salty chips; a half-eaten apple; a chocolate cookie.  No one made eye contact; we accepted the leftovers and placed them in the center of our huddle, tore them into smaller pieces to share and quietly ate without abandon.   

Although we didn’t know at the time, but some of the “higher” kids had 2-3 sandwiches each, extra helpings of chips and cookies.  Others may not have helped themselves to seconds or thirds, but ate only a portion of what they had taken and threw the rest away in a trash can just feet from where we sat on the floor.

Emotionally and physically, I was cold and tired; I felt alone and disconnected with a dark, heavy sadness.  Sleep and warmth sounded so good, almost as good as food or a warm drink; I just wanted to be alone; I hated this.     

November 27, 2011

I spent only a few days participating in a poverty simulation at Heifer International (Heifer.org) in Perryville, Arkansas.  I am still trying to reconcile this experience with my current “middle class” reality, following Thanksgiving.  Feeling disenfranchised, veiled as “lower” and the tired, heavy, sadness is what haunts me more now than the empty hunger I felt in my core.  The stark reality is many people live this as their daily reality.

Currently, 46.2 million Americans live in poverty (September, Census Bureau1).  That is 1 in every 6 U.S. citizens, for a country listed as the world’s richest. Today, 20.5 million Americans2 (1 in 15) are the poorest of the poor by United States standards.

What does this mean for our public schools?  Do public schools inadvertently play a role? Could a simple understanding be the key to solving the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students and the resulting disproportionality of minority special education placement rates?  Could this be the spirit behind No Child Left Behind and achieving Adequate Yearly Progress? I think so. 

O’Connor and Fernandez, 20064 summarize the current (and widely accepted) disproportionality theory as the following:

1. Minorities are more likely to be poor.

2. “Being” poor increases exposure to risk factors that compromise early development.

3. Compromised early development impinges on school preparedness and suppresses academic achievement, heightening the need for special education.

4. Thus minorities are more likely to warrant special education.

In contrast, O’Connor and Fernandez argue that it is “schools and not poverty that place minority students at a heightened risk for special education placement…and that there is nothing about poverty in and of itself that places poor children at academic risk; it is a matter of how structures of opportunity and constraint come to bear on the educational chances of the poor to either expand or constrain their likelihood of achieving competitive educational outcomes” (p. 10).  

This is a complex issue, needing a brave, urgent and clear focus.  Take a look at your own classroom, school or school system data and ask a few questions:

  • Who are your successful learners?
  • In the classrooms and schools with successful learners, who is leading?
  • Who is teaching? 
  • What’s happening in those classrooms?
  • Who wouldn’t deserve access to that?  

1. Income, Poverty and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010

2. Race,Class,and Disproportionality:Reevaluating the Relationship Between Poverty and Special Education Placement,  by Carla O’Connor and Sonia DeLuca Fernandez, 2006, Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 6–11. 

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