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

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

Thousands of community members throughout the state volunteer their time at low-income schools to help with one-on-one tutoring or teach extracurricular activities. There are nonprofit programs that collect books and pass them out to low-income little ones. Through mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, adult volunteers team up with struggling children. The corporate world has gotten involved, too: Many companies chip in or even completely fund after-school programs at high-poverty schools.

"How can we not help?" asked Desta Aure, a 72-year-old retiree from Sandy who has volunteered as a tutor at a low-income school for 12 years. "Education is the way you advance in your life and these kids, they need a little leg up."

At schools, combating the effects of poverty is a full-time job. While there are only about 260 Title I schools — schools deemed to be "high poverty" by the federal government — Ann White, Title I coordinator for the Utah Office of Education, said, "there's not a school in Utah that isn't fighting this."

Elementary school principals and teachers are constantly trying and re-trying different approaches to boost kids' test scores. Some schools have outfitted buses with tutors so students can practice their language and math skills on the ride to and from school. Other schools divide the student body in half and adjust class schedules so every student can benefit from smaller class sizes for at least 30 minutes a day. Children are regularly assessed and, when it's possible, given extra attention.

"I feel like it's my life mission to help the poor," said Cara Baldree, a third-grade teacher a Guadalupe Schools, a Salt Lake City charter school that primarily serves low-income students. She caught the bug some years ago as a student teacher. One of the boys in the class she was observing kept "dorking around," she said, and leaving his seat to run to the back of the room. When she went to chastise him, she discovered the boy didn't have any buttons on his shirt. He had gone to the back of the room to staple it shut.

"It broke my heart," she said.

Now 34 and with several years of teaching experience under her belt, Baldree deals with problems like that every day. Parents frequently take her aside, shamefaced, to tell her with tears in their eyes, "I can't help my child with homework." She discovered last week that one of her students, who had been struggling to stay awake in class, doesn't have a bed at home. Another child, who had been acting up in class, confided to her through tears that "Mom's in jail again." She takes every chance she can get to give them not only extra academic help but also "a little extra love."

At some Utah schools — Guadalupe included — low-income students start getting that kind of special attention early on. Early-childhood education experts start meeting with women in their homes before they give birth and continue to visit weekly until the child starts school. Parents are invited to classes where they learn how best to help their children prepare for school.

"Children learn most of their language-acquisition skills before the age of 3," said Audrey Powell, coordinator for the Salt Lake City School District's version of the program Parents as Teachers. "We see parents as a child's first and most influential teacher."

It was through Guadalupe's home-visit program that Brianna Nunez first learned about the importance of books, of talking with her child, even when he didn't seem to be listening, and keeping her temper in check.

"You don't think they know what's going on, but little kids absorb all of our stress," she said.

Last week, during a visit with a teacher from Guadalupe, Nunez introduced her 1-month-old to his first picture book — a black-and-white board book filled with photos of babies. The photos, her teacher explained, will stimulate the baby's brain. Nunez eagerly propped the baby up in the crook of her arm and, cooing, told him to "Look! Look at the babies." The little boy, though, seemed more interested in staring at the light seeping in through a tear in the living room curtains.

"That's OK," her teacher told her. "Just keep talking to him."

Some days, like this one, the teacher gives Nunez a lesson, then asks her to practice a skill. Other days the teacher gives the baby a test to monitor his development, or she videotapes Nunez mothering the baby so the two can talk constructively about how she might improve.

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