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

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

Yet each principals at these three top-performing, high-poverty schools said their numbers would have been worse if they had higher percentages of poverty or more English language learners. Belknap, Salina and Woodruff all had less than 60 percent of their students on free or reduced lunch. And Woodruff was the only one of the the three to have a limited English proficiency rate over 10 percent. (Woodruff has a rate of about 35 percent, according to the data associated with the school-year 2009-10.)

So in spite of programs like the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that in part was aimed at helping close the poverty achievement gap, it seems the state and the nation are still struggling.

John Jesse, assessment director in the State Office of Education, said the state is "not even close" to closing the poverty achievement gap.

"I think it could happen," Jesse said. "Do I think it is going to happen? — I don't know if we have the will as a society to do it. It takes a lot of effort, and we are not precise in our knowledge of how to do it."

Yet he believes Utah could be a leader in closing the gap with the state's strong sense of community, ethics, optimism and commitment.

"We as a community are obligated to help give these students a fair chance, to help them break the chains of poverty," Jesse said. "If not, we are a segregated society and that speaks against everything America is about."

The state should invest in low-income students early on, he said, perhaps in the first few years of life or even pre-natal. Some cities in the U.S. have decided to bus students living in high poverty schools to lower poverty schools to create a more even distribution among schools, and Jesse believes this could be a good possibility. For instance, Salt Lake City School District has an elementary school like Bonneville with just a 10 percent low-income rate and another school like Edison that has a 93 percent low-income rate. In fact, research by the National Center for Children in Poverty shows that low-income students who attend a higher-income school perform better than low-income students who attend a low-income school.

Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, is trying to create a statewide council of leaders to address issues of children in poverty.

"We need to fix the problem now," Robles said.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, believes it's partly a matter of attitude. He says too many high-poverty schools accept mediocrity instead of excellence. The State Education Committee will be looking at a proposal in the near future that would take the lowest-performing schools and replace the managing staff with a team of educators who have the best proposals on how to turn around the schools, Stephenson said.

The best advice for high-poverty schools is to have a stronger focus on teacher development and helping teachers build strong, positive relationships with their students, said Smith, of the National Center for Children's Poverty.

And Pamela Atkinson, who has spent decades caring for the state's homeless and who has been called the Mother Teresa of Utah, said there needs to be more parent involvement in schools.

"Poverty is going to be a predictive factor of scores if other preventions don't occur like early childhood education," said Ann White, Title I specialist for the state. "Use data to inform instruction, know where the child is. If they keep that data and make adjustments, all of those things help. Prevention methods are important. They are critical."

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