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

Published: Friday, June 17 2011 12:00 a.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.

"We can't do anything about income, but we can do something about achievement," Lewis said, who added that the school believes focusing more on where students are coming from and how they are progressing every few weeks will help the students perform better in the future.

Belknap Elementary School in Beaver School District was the only school in the state with half or more of its students on free or reduced lunch to score in the top 50 schools in the state. Belknap, in fact, scored in the top 10.

Principal Brady Fails attributes much of this success to having a strong literacy program, teachers and administrators who care individually about each student and a staff that collaborates together on data-driven ideas.

"We have a very close, tight-knit faculty and staff," Fails said. "Everyone is here to help everyone else. The teachers also see the kids in and out of school. They go to little league games or dance recitals when they can. The kids know the teachers are there for them and I think that especially helps in a Title I school. I believe that when students feel they are generally cared for, they will do more to be high achieving. They need to know that they are not just a number."

And Fails has seen this more over the last few years.

About five years ago, the school implemented the state's literacy program, said LaRayne Brown, literacy specialist for the district. Back then about 70 percent of Belknap students were measuring above the state-designated proficiency rate on state tests, she said. Now that number is more than 90 percent. Each night every K-3 child takes a new book home that is on their reading level. So do fourth- through sixth-graders who are behind, she said. Parents are required to sign off that the child read the book.

The students are also tested regularly to figure out what they need help on and those who are further behind are tested more often. The school then breaks the students up to get instruction from their teachers and literacy coaches depending on their needs and have a three-hour literacy block each day. She recalled one fifth-grader this year who was reading on an early third grade level, but with the help of the program he was on his grade level by the end of this year.

"The program is not a one-size-fits-all," Brown said. "They are instructed in reading on their own level. When they are doing well and working on a level where they can see success, they feel good about themselves and about school. The scores are great, but that's just an indicator. The real beauty of this is they are reading better."

Many of the other high-poverty schools that performed well attributed their achievement to successful literacy programs that instructed students on their own level — helping those who were struggling catch up and pushing students who are already advanced. Principal Jade Shepherd of Salina Elementary in the Sevier School district, which was one of the top high-scoring, high-poverty schools, said all-day kindergarten has been a big help. Teacher aides pre-teach the next day's lesson to the struggling students, which helps the students learn the material better and feel more comfortable asking questions. The students also are regularly monitored on their progress and make their own achievement goals. The school has also made a more concentrated effort in teaching differentiated math over the last couple of years.

Principal Daryl Guymon of Woodruff Elementary attributes part of his school's success to an attitude shift over the last couple of years. Woodruff, in Logan School District, came in 51st in the school rankings and has a poverty rate of nearly a 60 percent.

"As a building we have gained the attitude that every kid can learn and every kid will learn," said Guymon, who has been principal at the school for six years. "We are the deciding factor; it is not whether they came from a home of poverty or a home where they speak a different language. We are going to teach them, and we have that expectation."

He said this attitude has also rubbed off on the community and on parents.

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."

EMAIL: slenz@desnews.com, TWITTER: saralenz

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