Education is key in helping low-income children move beyond poor

Published: Sunday, Nov. 28 2010 9:00 p.m. MST

Natalie Malmaceda sings a Thanksgiving song while working on her vocabulary with other students and her teacher.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

This is the second part of a Deseret News series that examines how Utahns are empowering our poor in three areas: homelessness, education and health care.

SALT LAKE CITY — He looks tough with his shorts sagging low, wearing a hooded sweatshirt decorated with drawings of human skulls, but it doesn't take much to make 16-year-old Eric cry.

Just mention school.

He's a bright boy — so bright, in fact, that after cruising through elementary school with nearly straight A's, he jumped straight from fifth grade into seventh. Life circumstances, though, haven't made studying easy, and his grades have since hit rock bottom. He's spent his childhood watching his parents, who didn't graduate from high school, hop from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job. Since he was 9 years old, the family, unable to afford rent, has slept in the street, in abandoned houses and — on "good nights" — in homeless shelters. He couldn't count on finding dinner, let alone a quiet place to do homework.

"Because of everything I've been through, I wanna be the first one to graduate, go to college and actually get a career," said the teen, earnestly, tears spilling out of his big, brown eyes. "I don't wanna go through that again."

But when you're the poorest of the poor, Eric has found, the road to college — or even a high school diploma — can be a rough ride. Statistically, there is a near-perfect relationship between the poverty level of the student population at a high school and its tendency to lose students before graduation day. Higher percentages of poverty translate into lower test scores and more behavioral problems. According to a recent University of Utah study, the difference in test scores between rich and poor kids in Utah is greater even than the well-publicized disparity between Caucasian and ethnic-minority students.

The bad news is: More than 105,000 Utah children, like Eric, live in poverty, according to federal standards. The good news is: They don't have to tackle the problem on their own. Utah has no shortage of government programs, nonprofit organizations and casual do-gooders who are eager to help economically disadvantaged children improve their lives through education.

Eric isn't sure how his economic circumstances have affected his performance in school. He knows only this: Stressed about making ends meet, his parents didn't have much time or the energy to help him with his homework. Even if they did, once he got to middle school they lacked the background knowledge to give him much input, he said.

"It's all been on me," he said. "I couldn't get help at home. I was trying to do it by myself. I've always done it by myself, but there came a point where I couldn't handle it anymore."

Research indicates that poverty affects children in an even more profound way. Malnutrition, stress and toxic environments — all common side effects of poverty — negatively affect a child's developing brain. By age 3, studies show, low-income toddlers have developed working vocabularies only half the size of their middle-class peers. By second grade, low-income children lag so far behind on planning, memory and attention skills that researchers at the University of California-Berkeley in 2008 compared the damages of growing up in poverty to suffering a stroke.

"The disadvantage these kids are dealing with is incredible," said Jan Dole, director for the Utah Center for Reading and Literacy at the University of Utah. "Catching them up is hard work, not just for teachers, but for the students themselves."

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