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Perspective: Poverty among students must not be ignored

Perspective: Poverty among students must not be ignored

February 9th, 2014 by David Wilson, assistant principal, Jefferson City High School in News

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "a war on poverty" in his State of the Union address.

From that day forward, there has been a serious debate over how to address poverty in America, but there is agreement on one thing: most people - then and now - acknowledge that poverty brings great hardships and disadvantages for families in its grip.

In schools each day, educators face unique challenges that come about because of poverty.

Some students have been impoverished all their lives, while many others come from an established middle-class background.

You might be thinking, "What does that matter? Students are students and they all need to learn."

That's true, but it's not that simple.

In America, schools and businesses are run according to middle-class norms and values. But those who come from a background of poverty are not familiar with those middle-class expectations.

In schools, the vast majority of teachers grew up in a middle-class home but many of their students are not from the middle class.

Quite simply, students who have grown up in poverty come from a different world than the teachers they work with each day.

And no one should think for a minute that this doesn't create challenges.

It does. Almost daily.

Dr. Ruby Payne is an educator, author, and speaker who has done extensive work in this area.

Her research is detailed in her book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." She also speaks nationwide at conferences and seminars.

She explains that there are "hidden rules" that are used by the middle-class and that there are a different set of "hidden rules" that are used by those who remain in poverty.

"We must understand our students' hidden rules," she wrote, "and teach them the hidden middle-class rules that will make them successful at school and work. We can neither excuse them nor scold them for not knowing; we must teach them and provide support, insistence, and expectations."

Educators must do this to reach every student.

Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, and Representative Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, both wrote of education's contribution to economic advancement in the Jan. 25 issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Booker wrote, "If you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor." He also wrote that meeting educational needs are one of the many "sound ideas" being discussed to reduce poverty.

Ryan wrote, "If you graduate from high school, you're much less likely to end up poor." Later he added, "The best anti-poverty program is economic growth."

And we could add that making sure all students graduate is vital to sound economic growth overall.

So while President Johnson declared a war on poverty 50 years ago, and while politicians like Booker and Ryan continue to discuss strategies for addressing the issue today, educators have an opportunity to make a tremendous impact.

Every time schools graduate a student who came from an economically disadvantaged background, it makes the country stronger and more prosperous. And it makes lives better, one person at a time.

David Wilson, EdD, is one of the assistant principals at Jefferson City High School. You may e-mail him at