Thursday, May 22, 2008

School Issues: The Children (Part A)

One of the girls I tutor, Squaisha, is making real progress in school (in part, I hope, because I’m her friend). Then, about two weeks ago, just a month before the SOLs, she was not in school. Her teacher told me that she was out because she hadn’t received her vaccinations. By the time she was properly vaccinated, Squaisha missed about eight days of school. SOLs are next week and I am worried about how well she will do. This is the same Squaisha who lives with her grandmother because both her parents “passed.” (I never had the nerve to ask the teacher how Squaisha lost both her parents.) Of course, if Squaisha does not pass her SOLs this year, she will become part of a statistic that shows that Richmond Public Schools does not do as good a job educating its students as do the suburban school systems. It makes this maven angry to think about it.

Let’s look at the statistics from the Richmond Public Schools website. In the school year 2005-06, the most recent year for which statistics are posted, 77% of the elementary school children and 75% of the middle school children in Richmond Public Schools receive federally subsidized meals. (Eligibility for the federal meal subsidy is generally considered an indication that a child comes from a low-income family). The percentage of students receiving subsidized meals in high school dropped to 47%, I assume because many high school students do not eat at school at all.

So, what’s the significance of so many of our children receiving subsidized meals? Last August, in an article in Style Weekly, Don Cowles of Initiatives of Change was quoted as saying that school systems with more than 50% of their students receiving subsidized meals “simply do not succeed.” Well, Richmond Public Schools has a percentage of children receiving subsidized meals considerably higher than 50% and as a system it certainly is succeeding. See Richmond Public Schools are Pretty Damn Good.

Yet, children like Squaisha are struggling. Why? In the April 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Richard Rothstein says,

If you send two groups of students to equally high-quality schools, the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement than the more fortunate group.
Why is this so? Because low-income children often have no health insurance and therefore no routine preventive medical and dental care, leading to more school absences as a result of illness. Children in low-income families are more prone to asthma, resulting in more sleeplessness, irritability, and lack of exercise. They experience lower birth weight as well as more lead poisoning and iron-deficiency anemia, each of which leads to diminished cognitive ability and more behavior problems. Their families frequently fall behind in rent and move, so children switch schools more often, losing continuity of instruction.
Poor children are, in general, not read to aloud as often or exposed to complex language and large vocabularies. Their parents have low-wage jobs and are more frequently laid off, causing family stress and more arbitrary discipline. The neighborhoods through which these children walk to school and in which they play have more crime and drugs and fewer adult role models with professional careers. Such children are more often in single-parent families and so get less adult attention. They have fewer cross-country trips, visits to museums and zoos, music or dance lessons, and organized sports leagues to develop their ambition, cultural awareness, and self-confidence.
(To access Mr. Rothstein’s article, go to the ASCD website.)

As Dr. James Cruppi stated in his report to the greater Richmond business community last November,

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that the Richmond public schools are getting large numbers of children who are not ready for school, who grow up in single parent homes that don’t (or find it difficult to) reinforce education, require nutritional support, and live in a community environment that makes it very difficult to study and learn. . . . Were these problems in the counties, the schools would also have problems.

The fact is that children like Squaisha come to school carrying terrible baggage. That she is doing well (at least until the fiasco of her missing inoculations) testifies to her remarkable determination to succeed. As I pointed out last fall,

It is clearly not [the] fault [of our students] that they come to the race with a ball and chain around their ankles. I see these children every week and almost all of them are eager to learn and they are making remarkable progress despite the difficulties of their lives. They have dedicated, hard-working teachers. Their schools are run by competent, demanding principals.

Considering that so many of our children live in poverty, it is not so surprising that they do not score as well on SOLs as students with more affluent parents living in the suburbs.* Further, since parents with children approaching school age compare the SOL scores of city and suburban schools they conclude that the city schools are simply not as good.

If is very important to realize, however, that SOLs measure the progress of students, not schools. No school takes SOL exams. Only students do. If students in city schools do not perform as well as students in suburban schools, it does not necessarily mean that the city schools are not as good. As pointed out by Mr. Rothstein, above, if you send two groups of children to schools of equal quality, “the group with greater socioeconomic disadvantage will necessarily have lower average achievement” than will the group without such disadvantage.

I would love to do an experiment. I would love to exchange the student populations of a school in the city and a school in the suburbs. (We wouldn’t tell the parents about the experiment so that their behavior towards their children would not change.) Every day for an entire school year I would bus the suburban kids to the city school and the city kids to the suburban school. The school buildings, administrators and teachers would stay with the original school. I bet that at the end of that year, the suburban kids, now in the city school, would be outperforming the city kids, now in the suburban school. I would make that bet because I am convinced that the disadvantages with which many of our low-income students start school stay with them throughout their educations. Likewise, the advantages that more affluent students carry with them into kindergarten stay with them throughout their educations. Of course, we can never do that experiment and so we will never know whether I would win my bet.

Many of the children who attend Richmond Public Schools have problems that the schools are simply not equipped to deal with. To expect our schools to fix these children’s lives is unreasonable. The entire Richmond community must dedicate itself to improving the lives of our low-income children before they are enrolled in school, thus enabling them to begin their formal education with learning skills equal to their more affluent classmates. This will require us to address some of the issues raised by Dr. Cruppi in his report. Remember, Dr. Cruppi titled the section of his report dealing with RPS “Give Richmond Public Schools a ‘Product’ They Can Work With.”

Does this let RPS off the hook? Definitely not. As I stated when I announced my candidacy for the school board, we must demand excellence from our all students, teachers and administrators. We must not allow the disadvantage that some students have when they enroll in RPS to become an excuse. We need to set high expectations for all our children and then help them to meet these expectations. We may need to consider such options as city funded pre-kindergarten for all children, adding time to our school day for additional learning, offering “signing bonuses” to attract high quality teachers to the schools where our low-income students are concentrated.

All of these options will be costly. However, our children have only one life. Can we deprive them of the quality education that they need because it is too expensive? All of us in the Richmond community must commit ourselves to making sure that all of our children will succeed.

*I realise that many children from low-income backgrounds enter school with all the learning skills they need and achieve at a level equal to more affluent children. The comments in the Cruppi report and the observations by Mr. Rothstein apply to low-income children in general.


Jennifer said...

I wasn't sure where you were going with this post at first, but I'm glad I read it all the way through. I think you make a good point, although I'm not sure what we're supposed to do about the preschool kids. We can't make their parents read to them, or not smoke around them when they know they have asthma, or not leave a week's worth of dirty dishes out to attract the roaches that cause it in the first place.

We may need to consider such options as city funded pre-kindergarten for all children, adding time to our school day for additional learning, offering “signing bonuses” to attract high quality teachers to the schools where our low-income students are concentrated.

Isn't the state moving towards that with the VPI? Also, I don't think the city fills all the slots they have as it is. I registered my son for pre-K next year. Some of his friends are going to Fisher so I put that as our first choice, but I was told I was guaranteed a slot in WH regardless. That tells me there's not that much competition for them. Granted, there are twice as many slots (36) at WH as there are at Fisher (18) but I know there are plenty of kids his age in the area. If the parents aren't taking advantage of what's already out there, will the city think it's worth it to fund even more slots? I dunno, maybe there's a last-minute rush on the pre-K program.
As for "signing bonuses," since almost all of the city schools qualify as low-income schools, people who teach in them can get their student loans forgiven. Sounds like a pretty good bonus to me. I don't think I want the city trying to match the Feds with my tax dollars.

gray said...

Cruppi and Rothstein are talking about the poorest of the poor in our schools. Below what income level makes one poor? And below what income levels makes one eligible for free and reduced lunches? The majority of the students at Bellevue are, for the most part, from out of zone therefore they have parents who are very much involved in their lives.

Bert Berlin said...

For 2005-06, the RPS website shows Bellevue total school population 298, reduced lunch 25, free lunch 203. That results in a subsidized meals percentage of about 77%, which is the same for all the Richmond elementary schools lumped together.
The subsidized meals program is administered by the US Department of Agriculture. You can see the eligibilty criteria for the 2005-06 school year at

gray said...

"They have dedicated, hard-working teachers. Their schools are run by competent, demanding principals."

Cruppi sounds like he works for the RPS administration. The low-income parents I speak with daily are dedicated and hard-working. And calling kids a "product" that RPS can work with is an insult.

This whole piece here, and I know Maven you didn't intend it, blames yet again the parents. Being poor is not a sin. And I have witnessed time and time again the poor being treated differently in RPS than the middle class and wealthy.

The "product" I'm unhappy with is the educational product RPS has been pushing on us for years that just doesn't work. There will always be poor people, broken homes, etc. It is the schools job to educate the child and treat that child with dignity and respect. And I'm sorry to say, too often I've seen students and their parents treated with disrespect.

There are good teachers and principals in RPS but there are also bad teachers and inept bad principals out there too. And downtown, there is definite corruption. Like I said, there will always be poor people but do we always have to put up with corrupt inept leaders?

Recently, an Henrico principal agreed that the problem in RPS is not with the students and teachers but with the administration downtown. I think if you were to send city kids to Henrico schools, they would fare better.

Anonymous said...

Bert -- I grow weary of the ever-diminishing expectations that follow anytime someone attempts to rationalize poor performance of RPS schools by noting the high percentages of children living in poverty.

Poverty should be seen as a FACT -- not an EXCUSE. If RPS really does have HIGH expectations, then why is it that they have more children in pre-algebra in the 8-th grade instead of taking actual algebra?

Why does RPS think it is appropriate to suspend OUT OF SCHOOL more than 20,000 (yep ... 20,000 and more students?

Since when is it acceptable to suspend elementary school-age children for extended periods of time?

Until these schools are right, our city will never be right.

What are the first three things you would want to do if you happen to get elected?

gray said...

I went to the and found that teachers salaries, especially if they have children, fall in the low-income group and would be eligible for free or reduced lunches. Low-income encompasses a large group of people, too large to generalize.

tiny said...

Poverty is not an excuse, nor is it a single cause, for the lack of school achievement in RPS. Poverty is simple one of many factors that must be considered when designing a curriculum and setting educational goals. The school budget should include line items to address both instructional and non-instructional services to meets the needs of the community.

Like our neighborhoods here in Richmond, parents and students come to RPS with a variety of wants and needs. This mix includes accelerated learning programs as well as intensive special education services; extra-curricula funding for arts programs along with adequate provisions to address transportation and after-school care issues; challenging projects for the advanced student in addition to mentoring programs to build respect and foster non-violence. For our schools to succeed, we need to expertly balance, and fulfill, all of these considerations.