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Understanding Poverty

An innovative workshop helps educators close the achievement gap.

By Cindy Long

Executive Committee member Carolyn Crowder joins Oklahoma City educators at a workshop about poverty’s effects on students.
Sitting around tables scattered throughout the school library, the faculty of Tulakes Elementary School in Oklahoma City gripped steaming cups of coffee in one hand, pens in the other, as they scribbled furiously in their notebooks. Their assignment: to define poverty.

As participants in a workshop called “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” the educators at Tulakes in Oklahoma’s Putnam City Schools, where more than 95 percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals because of their families’ income levels, are working to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between poverty and middle class. The program introduces educators to the culture of poverty and the obstacles it throws in front of students trying to succeed in school.

“We’re always hearing about how we need to close the achievement gap, but there isn’t as much discussion about why those gaps exist in the first place. This workshop addresses the ‘whys’ and offers real strategies to solve these problems rather than just identifying they exist with tests,” said NEA Executive Committee Member Carolyn Crowder, who helped create a partnership among the Oklahoma Education Association, NEA, and American Fidelity Assurance Company to bring the workshop to Putnam City Schools.

“After hearing about the success of the workshop in North Carolina schools, I wanted to bring the program here to Oklahoma, and hopefully help introduce it to other states. One of the benefits of being affiliated with a national organization such as NEA is that progressive partnerships can be established to offer schools these kinds of resources.”

At the Tulakes workshop in Oklahoma City, volunteers from each table read their definitions of poverty to the group: “having limited opportunities and life experiences,” “having a lack of financial resources,” “having to decide between buying laundry detergent or food.”

The exercise showed the educators that even though most of us have preconceived notions of poverty, unless we’ve experienced it directly, we can’t fully understand what it means to be poor.

According to author, education expert, and workshop creator Ruby Payne, living in poverty can be defined by “the extent to which an individual does without resources.”  Most people consider the lack of financial resources to be the cause for poverty, but there are seven other factors that can contribute, such as doing without emotional resources, mental resources (including the acquired skills of reading, writing, and simple computing necessary for daily life), spiritual resources, physical resources, support systems, and relationships and role models.

The leaders of the workshop, Tina Child and Dutchess Maye, both from the North Carolina Teacher Academy, also told the Tulakes educators about the hidden rules associated with different economic classes. Most teachers and administrators haven’t been exposed to the hidden rules of poverty, and poor students are unaware of the middle class’s hidden rules, the same rules under which schools operate. Unless those rules are shared, the chances of success for children in poverty are limited.

For example, the Tulakes teachers learned many people in poverty live in the moment because survival is their top priority—their energies are consumed with simply getting through each day and making sure there is food on the table and lights on in the house. Those in the middle class live with their eye to the future, where achievement is the top priority. To the middle class, education is crucial for financial success. To those in poverty, education is revered in the abstract, but it’s not considered a long-term reality.

According to Payne, educators “can neither excuse students nor scold them for not knowing [the hidden rules]; as educators, we must teach them and provide support, insistence and expectations.”

Child and Maye explained that the best way to help students learn the hidden rules and increase their chances for academic success is to act as a role model. By example, role models can teach students about the unspoken cues and habits of the middle class.

Teachers, administrators, and all school employees should seek out students in need of a positive role model and create partnerships with organizations that offer volunteer mentors or tutors. Spending as little as 10 minutes a day with a student who may have no other positive role model in his or her life can make a lasting difference.

Photo by Nate Billings

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