Maybe you noticed the little girl at your child’s school, still wearing flip-flops even though her teeth are chattering.
It isn’t a fashion statement. Her family can’t afford new shoes.
The lunch your child complains about? It’s the only hot meal, maybe the only meal, she’ll have today.
Don’t forget the class field trip to a local farm. You called it a waste of time. She’s still talking about everything she saw.
It’s been said that education is the door to a brighter future. For a growing number of Iowa students, however, it’s getting harder to walk through that door.
The percentage of students living in poverty is increasing throughout the state. The number of kids without enough food to eat and no health insurance has increased significantly, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
“We make a lot about the achievement gap, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that schools inherit the achievement gap,” said Peter Hlebowitsh, professor of teaching and learning at the University of Iowa College of Education. “It comes through the school doors, and they have to try and close it.”
A difficult task on its own, but for students who are unprepared to learn — maybe they didn’t eat that morning or they’re worried about where they’ll sleep that night — it’s nearly impossible.
Schools have rallied around their at-risk students, finding ways to support their needs and, ultimately, improve their ability to learn. The efforts go beyond providing breakfast and lunch. Schools partner with numerous community service groups to provide things from school supplies to basic health care. Guidance counselors, school social workers, sometimes even classroom teachers help families navigate the red tape of social service groups, locating programs that help families with utility bills, winter clothing, English skills — maybe even temporary shelter.
“It is that basic. Kids need to have their essential needs met in order to have the opportunity to benefit from instruction, and today there are more and more students who don’t have this,” said Ann Garcia Santos, a clinical assistant professor at the UI graduate program in school psychology.
The economy has led to the increase of families needing help. At the same time, budget cuts mean less funding for some community service programs. When the money disappears, so do the services.
“When I first started here, if someone needed something, we could get it,” said Joan Vanden Berg, youth and family development coordinator for the Iowa City school district. “The resources are just thinner now. Homeless shelters are full. This is the first year I know about children in our district who don’t have a place to live.”
According to Iowa’s 2010 Condition of Education report, 28.8 percent of the state’s students qualified for free meals and 8.2 percent qualified for reduced-price lunches during the 2009-10 school year — nearly double from the year 2000.
Locally, nearly 47 percent of the Cedar Rapids school district’s students qualify for free and reduced lunch prices this year. Iowa City’s percentage is around 30 percent.
A family of four, making $2,422 a month, is eligible for the free lunch program.
Iowa’s largest school districts report the highest percentage of students eligible for free meals, but poverty is on the rise throughout the state.
“A lot of this poverty is relatively new poverty, families that are newly affected by poverty,” said Michele Devlin, professor and director of the Iowa Center on Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa.
These are families who find themselves on the receiving end of clothing giveaways and food bank services, programs they never expected to need until a job loss moved them into the qualifying range.
“These families, in particular, are less prepared or able to function in this new era,” Devlin said.
This is where the schools have an advantage. Children spend most of their week in a school building, around adults who know them, know their families. That relationship makes it easier for schools to reach out when they see a student in need.
“It is by way of these relationships that we can ask the tough, uncomfortable questions when problems arise in a school day,” said the UI’s Garcia Santos. “No relationship results in families that distrust and resent any additional involvement of the school.”
The relationship between schools and social services, though, still needs refining.
“We’re resource-rich, but we’re not terribly coordinated,” said Kim Malcolm, a school social worker with Grant Wood Area Education Agency.
For years, the knowledge of available programs was spotty. When the Iowa City school district opened its first Family Resource Center at Hills Elementary School in 1995, it was with the intent of reaching a high poverty school that was geographically isolated.
Today, every Iowa City school has a resource center or case manager.
The Cedar Rapids school district’s Learning Supports Leadership Team has a systemic approach, with the goal of making sure everyone in the district knows about social services and non-profit programs that help kids. This includes partnering with local churches to fill backpacks with non-perishable food for hungry kids to take home for the weekend or finding a dentist who will fill cavities free-of-charge.
Communication and coordination between the district and community groups has improved, but there are still some struggles around the different rules each entity has. At the same time, school staffers must balance their desire to help with the knowledge that some families aren’t used to needing it.
“It’s a learning curve for staff,” said Paul Hayes, Cedar Rapids’ secondary student services facilitator. “How do you approach a family who needs help and hasn’t asked for it?”
It needs to be done, school staffers say.
Children living in poverty are at risk of underachievement, behavior problems, school absenteeism and dropping out. Research shows that the chances are high that they will become victims of violence, substance use/abuse or other negative life choices. Early intervention helps avoid those outcomes, but without consistent funding for programs, schools are simply trying to fill the gaps when they can.
“It gets frustrating,” said Rhoda Shepherd, director of student services for Cedar Rapids schools. “We see the need for a lot of preventive services, but there’s no funding for it. We’re a country that responds.”