MIDVALE — Christina Oller's 6-year-old daughter, Brooke, is in the first grade, and she's feeling overwhelmed with her school work.
"My daughter is so behind on her reading. I think a lot of it has to do with switching schools," Oller said.
Oller said she tries to help Brooke at home, but that only goes so far. She dropped out of school after completing the seventh grade, she said.
"That's another reason it's hard for me to do homework with her," Oller said. "I can't teach her the way a teacher can."
Oller says a bill before the Utah Legislature that would create a grant program to provide two hours of additional instruction in math and reading for children experiencing intergenerational poverty would be "awesome" for children like Brooke.
On Monday, the Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed SB43, sponsored by Sen. Stuart Reid, R-Ogden.
Reid said he believes helping Utah children compete with their academic peers will "rescue" them from intergenerational poverty and dependence on public assistance.
State data on users of public assistance dating back to 1989 show some families are in their fourth generation of poverty and welfare dependence, he said.
Absent meaningful interventions, the latest generation of impoverished children in Utah public schools are highly likely to repeat the cycle, Reid said.
Providing additional help in math and reading instruction will help level the playing field between struggling students and their peers. Otherwise, they will fall further behind in school, drop out and qualify only for low-wage jobs, he said.
“When we shove them along through the grades, they know they’re not competing. They know they’re losing every day. It’s devastating,” Reid said.
“Then we wonder why they’re not productive adults."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, voted to give the bill a favorable recommendation but questioned whether two hours of after-school instruction would make an appreciable difference in these children's lives.
“As you consider our school system expanding its after-school efforts for these students, how can we be sure it’s going to have the effect you describe?” Stephenson asked.
The immediate goal is to help children perform on par with their peers by reinforcing what was taught during the day in a small group setting, Reid said.
The Ogden Republican said he believes the grant program, which was supported by the State School Board, will be under intense scrutiny. Under the legislation, school districts or charter schools that receive the grants will be required to report to the board and the Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commission.
"If it's not working, it won’t be supported," Reid said.
SB43 seeks $5 million in ongoing money for the grant program. The state appropriation would be matched with federal funds. Student participation would be voluntary.
“I’m hard-pressed to understand why a parent, if their child is falling behind, why they wouldn’t want them to be part of this program," Reid said.
The bill is part Reid's ongoing effort to address impacts of intergenerational welfare in Utah.
In 2012, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Reid that required the Department of Workforce Services to create a system to track intergenerational poverty data to identify at-risk children and to publish an annual report.
The 2013 report identified more than 52,400 Utah children ages newborn to 17 who live in intergenerational poverty.
That effort was followed by legislation in 2013 that created a state commission to develop policy recommendations to end intergenerational poverty and dependence on public assistance programs.
SB43 now moves to the Senate for its consideration.
Oller said she would want Brooke to seek additional help because her young daughter's struggles manifest themselves in frequent phone calls from school because she is complaining of a headache or a stomachache.
"She's really worried about it. She's worried she'll have to do first grade again," Oller said.
Oller's son, Shawn, is in the third grade and doing well in school. She also has a 2-year-old son, Landon.
One of Oller's goals is to earn her GED so she can work toward a better job. She and her children are living at the Family Support Center's LifeStart Village, a residential program for mothers and children.
Oller's own mother spent time in prison, and she was raised by the father of her half-sister. Without a high school diploma, she's mostly worked as a cashier and at fast-food restaurants.
She's learned the hard way that to make a living wage, her children not only need to finish high school, they need to go to college.
Some children need a hand up to reach the goal she wants for her children, "not to be dependent on anyone or anything."
Oller said allowing children to struggle in school can have lifelong consequences for them and for taxpayers.
"In the long run, I think it will cost a lot more if you don't do it," she said.
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