Utah: 'Not even close' to closing the poverty gap

Published: Thursday, June 16 2011 11:00 p.m. MDT

Elia Carranza helps her son Jose drink chocolate milk at a summer lunch program.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

OGDEN — April Hadley remembers the day she took her oldest daughter Amelia, now 8, to kindergarten at Club Heights Elementary. Her daughter's teacher commented that it was nice to have a student who came from a two-parent home in her class.

"It broke my heart," Hadley recalled.

Over the last few years, the parent of four has questioned her decision to send her children to a school with that dynamic. Eighty percent of the students there qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty, and about one in four students at Club Heights is considered a limited English speaker. Many of Hadley's neighbors have chosen to send their kids to a charter school or another public school.

The reason — high poverty schools with a high minority population often don't perform as well as low poverty schools, and Utah schools are no exception.

Last month, the Deseret News, KSL and Deseret Digital Media ranked all the elementary schools in the state according to how well they did on their math and language arts state test scores in 2010. A deeper look at the data revealed a disturbing fact about Utah's high-poverty elementary schools, schools in which more than half of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Of schools with more than 250 students, only 14 percent of the high-poverty schools managed to finish in the top half of the state rankings.

Every school that had 90 percent or more of its students on free or reduced lunch scored in the bottom 9 percent in the state.

Some local and national officials attributed this phenomenon to low-income parents being more likely to have multiple low-wage jobs and not as much time to spend reading to, talking with or helping their children with homework.

Low-income families are also more likely to have a number of other risk factors that can affect children like parents with low education, higher levels of parental depression, linguistic isolation and inadequate healthcare, said Sheila Smith, the director for early childhood for the National Center for Children in Poverty.

She says the more risk factors a student has, the more likely they are to not perform as well.

Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association who was a teacher for more than 30 years, retold a story of having a 7-year-old child in a classroom that had to cook for and take care of younger siblings. Others like Karen Chatterton, assistant principal at two Title I elementary schools in the Granite School District, said she was surprised to see some of her students only getting two meals a day — both from the school.

The National Center for Children in Poverty found that by age 4, poor children are 18 months behind developmentally and this gap often still exists at age 10. The center also discovered that just increasing the income level of families in poverty has a positive effect on child development.

Yet some low-scoring schools seem to be making great strides, especially over the last couple of years. For instance, Ogden School District has the highest low-income rate in the state at 77 percent. In 2010, five of the district's elementary schools scored in the bottom 10 in the state. But while just 23 percent of the district's incoming kindergartners were measuring at benchmark at the beginning of this school year, 93 percent of them were by the end of the year, said Greg Lewis, Odgen School District's executive director of curriculum and instruction. Lewis attributes much of this to a higher focus on literacy this year and the ability to hire more teacher aides through the state's K-3 reading initiative. From 2009 to 2010, he said 12 of his district's 14 elementary schools reduced the amount of students scoring below the state's rate of proficiency by at least 10 percent.

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