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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Natalie Malmaceda sings a Thanksgiving song while working on her vocabulary with other students and her teacher.

This is the second part of a Deseret News series that examines how Utahns are empowering our poor in three areas: homelessness, education and health care.

SALT LAKE CITY — He looks tough with his shorts sagging low, wearing a hooded sweatshirt decorated with drawings of human skulls, but it doesn't take much to make 16-year-old Eric cry.

Just mention school.

He's a bright boy — so bright, in fact, that after cruising through elementary school with nearly straight A's, he jumped straight from fifth grade into seventh. Life circumstances, though, haven't made studying easy, and his grades have since hit rock bottom. He's spent his childhood watching his parents, who didn't graduate from high school, hop from minimum-wage job to minimum-wage job. Since he was 9 years old, the family, unable to afford rent, has slept in the street, in abandoned houses and — on "good nights" — in homeless shelters. He couldn't count on finding dinner, let alone a quiet place to do homework.

"Because of everything I've been through, I wanna be the first one to graduate, go to college and actually get a career," said the teen, earnestly, tears spilling out of his big, brown eyes. "I don't wanna go through that again."

But when you're the poorest of the poor, Eric has found, the road to college — or even a high school diploma — can be a rough ride. Statistically, there is a near-perfect relationship between the poverty level of the student population at a high school and its tendency to lose students before graduation day. Higher percentages of poverty translate into lower test scores and more behavioral problems. According to a recent University of Utah study, the difference in test scores between rich and poor kids in Utah is greater even than the well-publicized disparity between Caucasian and ethnic-minority students.

The bad news is: More than 105,000 Utah children, like Eric, live in poverty, according to federal standards. The good news is: They don't have to tackle the problem on their own. Utah has no shortage of government programs, nonprofit organizations and casual do-gooders who are eager to help economically disadvantaged children improve their lives through education.

Eric isn't sure how his economic circumstances have affected his performance in school. He knows only this: Stressed about making ends meet, his parents didn't have much time or the energy to help him with his homework. Even if they did, once he got to middle school they lacked the background knowledge to give him much input, he said.

"It's all been on me," he said. "I couldn't get help at home. I was trying to do it by myself. I've always done it by myself, but there came a point where I couldn't handle it anymore."

Research indicates that poverty affects children in an even more profound way. Malnutrition, stress and toxic environments — all common side effects of poverty — negatively affect a child's developing brain. By age 3, studies show, low-income toddlers have developed working vocabularies only half the size of their middle-class peers. By second grade, low-income children lag so far behind on planning, memory and attention skills that researchers at the University of California-Berkeley in 2008 compared the damages of growing up in poverty to suffering a stroke.

"The disadvantage these kids are dealing with is incredible," said Jan Dole, director for the Utah Center for Reading and Literacy at the University of Utah. "Catching them up is hard work, not just for teachers, but for the students themselves."

In diagnosing the problem, most experts point back to insufficient stimulation in early childhood. For one reason or another, many poor children are not read to when they're small, Dole said. By the time the average middle-class child gets to school, he or she has about 10,000 hours experience with books, studies indicate. Many low-income children get as few as 10 hours. Furthermore, when you're struggling to put food on the table, there's not much time, energy or money left over to take kids on outings to the pumpkin patch, the zoo or the children's museum. It's in having these types of experiences, Dole said, that children begin to make connections about the world and develop the beginnings of the vocabulary they need for school.

"There really is a difference between conversational language and academic language — and it's vital for kids to have both," Dole said. "It's been thoroughly proven that the more children are exposed to the language of books, the easier time they have in school."

Early vocabulary problems can follow students through grade school, into middle school and on to high school, she said. Intensive tutoring in preschool and kindergarten may catch kids up by first grade, but, several studies show, things often go downhill again after fourth grade when students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. As homework gets harder to understand, teens often lose interest in school.

"Kids need that exposure," Dole said. "High-poverty children may never have heard of words like 'nature.' Imagine how difficult things get when we start talking about ecosystems."

It's not that parents aren't trying.

Sitting on a bed in the Road Home's Midvale overflow shelter — one of dozens of beds packed in just feet apart — on a recent afternoon, watching his daughter flip through the pages of a library book, 47-year-old Ronald Barrett lost his composure. "There's nothing more important to me than my kids' education," said the father of three, tears rolling unchecked down his weatherworn cheeks. "I am just terrified that they will end up like me. I want to make sure they have a better life."

Father-of-five Steven Raider, 55, who also is living at the Midvale shelter, gets up at 4:30 a.m. every day to walk his daughter to the TRAX station so she can get to school early to study. Though he now proudly reports that his girl is a straight-A student, getting there has been difficult. They haven't always had money for school supplies. Because the family couldn't always make rent, they've moved around a lot. Research indicates children lose six months of knowledge every time they switch schools.

"My kids made it on their own," Raider said. "I wanna say that me and my wife was perfect parents, that we did everything right. But I was just trying to figure things out."

Life doesn't come with an instruction manual and, despite good intentions, there are a lot of things parents like Barrett and Raider just didn't know.

When 24-year-old Brianna Nunez brought her first baby home from the hospital three years ago, for example, "I felt like I knew what I was doing. I had done a lot of baby-sitting. I knew about kids, how to feed them, change their diapers, get them to sleep, you know?"

But, she said, cradling her second child in her lap last week, "I had no idea I was supposed to read to my baby."

Nunez, who, with the help of her husband, supports her children with a job cashiering at Wendy's, didn't graduate from high school and, until recently, hadn't so much as heard of the science of child development.

"I mean, why would I read to him?" she said. "He's little. He sleeps all the time. I just thought, 'He doesn't know what's going on.' "

The solution, said Mary Burbank, director of the Urban Institute for Teacher Education at the University of Utah, is "education, education, education." But it's not a matter of just slapping together a few summer camps to help children get caught up.

"The key is collaboration across a community," Burbank said. "Schools, families, community agencies, religious organizations as a collective really capture success in areas of high poverty."

Working together to help poor kids get the most out of school, she said, is something Utahns do well.

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.

"It's very helpful," said Nunez, who proudly boasts that her 3-year-old, who also went through the program, is now outperforming all the other children in her neighborhood. He's fluent in Spanish and English and loves learning so much he cries when she makes him stay home from preschool when sick.

For older children, the United Way and Salt Lake Community Action Program have teamed up with several school districts in the valley to build "community learning centers," where students can go for homework help and parents can get parenting tips and help learning English. The Boys & Girls Club provides tutoring, sports and a variety of other activities ranging from dance classes to arts instruction. The Food Bank pitches in, too, providing a hot dinner.

"It's awesome because there's like fun things," said Sipi Fifita, 13, who attends Glendale Middle School's evening program, over his sloppy-Joe dinner at the school last week. "Plus it gives me a place to stay when my parents aren't home. If I weren't here, I'd probably be like doing bad stuff."

At the Boys & Girls Club, Eric has found purpose once again. There are people on hand to answer his questions about homework, a quiet place to study and, he noted with a grin, a music-recording studio to aid him in filling his spare time. Since he started coming to the club at the beginning of this school year, Eric, who now sings in his high school choir, brought his grades from F's to B's.

"In a matter of weeks, this place has changed my life," he said.

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Through its Teen Turnaround program, the club keeps track of kids' academics, provides resources to prepare for college entrance exams and helps them apply for scholarships. With the encouragement of his mentors, Eric said, he's thinking about college again.

College. That's the other thing that makes the big teen cry.

Walking out of his mentor's office at the Boys & Girls Club recently, he paused to stroke, lovingly, the silky folds of the graduation gown hanging on the door.

"I'm going to be wearing that one day," he said. His eyes glistened with tears of hope.

Tuesday: Health care

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com