Poverty hampers kids' educations much the way snow hampers transportation. But snow melts. Poverty is much more permanent.
Poverty affects the path to a good education like a snowstorm. Some people are prepared for it and some aren’t. Some places get buried under it and some escape it altogether.
Every other conversation I’ve had this week has been about snow, so everything else that enters my brain gets tangled up with thoughts about the weather. That’s what happened while I was reading about a national conference on education and disadvantaged students. In fact, it was the way I heard about the conference that started me thinking in analogies.
I got an email from Jeffrey Guite, a disabled veteran, who runs American Preparedness, a business that manufactures and sells emergency-preparedness kits. I’ve written about him before.
This time he’s partnering with educators who will assemble 72-hour emergency kits for hundreds of children during the National Title I Conference that’s scheduled to start Saturday at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle. The kits address physical emergencies, like storms, but the conference is mostly about a different kind of disaster.
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Title I is the 1965 legislation that created a funding program to improve the learning prospects of poor children. It was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Long before Johnson thought about being president, he was a schoolteacher in a poor district in South Texas, so he knew how much a drag poverty can be on a child’s life prospects.
The rest of us don’t always understand that. For a lot of Americans, poverty is a condition you grit your teeth and overcome, which is why the war against poverty has had such a low priority.
The annual Title I conferences educate educators about the effects of poverty and ways to combat them. There will be talks about research that, over the past several years, has made concrete the kind of understanding of poverty that Johnson felt in his gut decades ago.
For today though, think snow.
Everybody can get around in the snow if they just put their minds to it; doesn’t matter whether one person is driving a new SUV with chains and someone else is piloting an old compact car with bald tires. Silly thought, isn’t it. But many people view poverty that way.
Suppose one child lives in a hilly neighborhood and another in a flat area. Wouldn’t snow affect them differently?
Suppose the two children are Seattle and Chicago responding to a snowstorm: One is flat, the other hilly. One is used to snowfall, the other rarely has to deal with it.
One has lots of equipment, which makes sense because it gets big snows every year. The other doesn’t because that wouldn’t make economic sense when big snows are so unusual.
None of the differences in circumstances stops people from complaining that Seattle can’t handle the snow. People grumble that the city’s reaction says something about its character rather than being a reflection of its circumstances. I’m sure I’ve said that myself, before I ever stopped to think about it. Sometimes both character and circumstances play a role and you have to address both.
Cities can make adjustments if they have to, which Seattle has done.
Children can make changes, too, but it’s a little different in their case. It’s critical that the adults around them know how to compensate for the children’s disadvantages, and that begins with understanding how circumstances shape both their strengths and their weaknesses.
Research shows us that a pregnant woman under constant stress transmits hormones to her child which change how his brain will operate, preparing it for the kinds of reactions you need in dangerous environments. Address parental stress and improve a child’s prospects.
Children learn different cultural coping skills in different environments and bring those skills to the classroom with them.
If a child lives in a place where it’s necessary to aggressively defend yourself, he’d likely take that behavior into class with him and be labeled a troublemaker, unless he learned that a classroom challenge isn’t a threat. Teachers who understand a child’s reactions can help that child adjust to a different environment.
Some families are equipped to teach their children a lot before they ever arrive at school.
Educators have to do a better job of helping children who haven’t had that kind of start compensate early on.
It’s important to address learning deficits before children get to kindergarten.
Early-education programs are necessary, and programs that help parents nurture better skills in their young children are the most helpful.
We know that while being poor is a disadvantage, numerous variables influence how it affects children. Having an unemployed parent has a more negative impact on education than having a parent who works for low wages.
Parental education levels and background matter, too. Responses have to take variables into account just like city planners must know how the weather interacts with different terrains.
One way in which snow and opportunity are not alike is that the snow will melt away in a few days, and drivers will be on more equal footing.
Disadvantages from poverty require ongoing attention and effort.
Impoverished children depend more heavily on schools to improve their life chances than do middle-class children, but the ultimate solution has to be a more vigorous war against poverty itself.
No child should be left out in the cold.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.