In diagnosing the problem, most experts point back to insufficient stimulation in early childhood. For one reason or another, many poor children are not read to when they're small, Dole said. By the time the average middle-class child gets to school, he or she has about 10,000 hours experience with books, studies indicate. Many low-income children get as few as 10 hours. Furthermore, when you're struggling to put food on the table, there's not much time, energy or money left over to take kids on outings to the pumpkin patch, the zoo or the children's museum. It's in having these types of experiences, Dole said, that children begin to make connections about the world and develop the beginnings of the vocabulary they need for school.
"There really is a difference between conversational language and academic language — and it's vital for kids to have both," Dole said. "It's been thoroughly proven that the more children are exposed to the language of books, the easier time they have in school."
Early vocabulary problems can follow students through grade school, into middle school and on to high school, she said. Intensive tutoring in preschool and kindergarten may catch kids up by first grade, but, several studies show, things often go downhill again after fourth grade when students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. As homework gets harder to understand, teens often lose interest in school.
"Kids need that exposure," Dole said. "High-poverty children may never have heard of words like 'nature.' Imagine how difficult things get when we start talking about ecosystems."
It's not that parents aren't trying.
Sitting on a bed in the Road Home's Midvale overflow shelter — one of dozens of beds packed in just feet apart — on a recent afternoon, watching his daughter flip through the pages of a library book, 47-year-old Ronald Barrett lost his composure. "There's nothing more important to me than my kids' education," said the father of three, tears rolling unchecked down his weatherworn cheeks. "I am just terrified that they will end up like me. I want to make sure they have a better life."
Father-of-five Steven Raider, 55, who also is living at the Midvale shelter, gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to walk his daughter to the TRAX station so she can get to school early to study. Though he now proudly reports that his girl is a straight-A student, getting there has been difficult. They haven't always had money for school supplies. Because the family couldn't always make rent, they've moved around a lot. Research indicates children lose six months of knowledge every time they switch schools.
"My kids made it on their own," Raider said. "I wanna say that me and my wife was perfect parents, that we did everything right. But I was just trying to figure things out."
Life doesn't come with an instruction manual and, despite good intentions, there are a lot of things parents like Barrett and Raider just didn't know.
When 24-year-old Brianna Nunez brought her first baby home from the hospital three years ago, for example, "I felt like I knew what I was doing. I had done a lot of baby-sitting. I knew about kids, how to feed them, change their diapers, get them to sleep, you know?"
But, she said, cradling her second child in her lap last week, "I had no idea I was supposed to read to my baby."
Nunez, who, with the help of her husband, supports her children with a job cashiering at Wendy's, didn't graduate from high school and, until recently, hadn't so much as heard of the science of child development.
"I mean, why would I read to him?" she said. "He's little. He sleeps all the time. I just thought, 'He doesn't know what's going on.' "
The solution, said Mary Burbank, director of the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah, is "education, education, education." But it's not a matter of just slapping together a few summer camps to help children get caught up.
"The key is collaboration across a community," Burbank said. "Schools, families, community agencies, religious organizations as a collective really capture success in areas of high poverty."
Working together to help poor kids get the most out of school, she said, is something Utahns do well.
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