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Letter to the Editor: Economics play key role in education

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Saturday, November 18, 2017

We need to be completely honest with ourselves: our local schools are failing our low-income children. I have great respect and deep admiration for our teachers and school administrators who are pouring everything they have into the education of our children on a daily basis – they are heroes. But with that said, something is broken and it is at a crisis point.

Much has been said recently about the academic performance at Williford Elementary, and while everyone is busy searching for the right person to blame, there are some important and significant truths to be faced.

First, we are going to have to come to the point as a community when we are willing to verbalize and own the fact that our low-income children come to school with significantly different needs than kids from higher-income families. Many of our low-income children are living in stressful and unsafe environments. These children witness things on a regular basis that children should not witness. Many of them have to move residences multiple times per year, live in substandard housing, or suffer homelessness. Many struggle with food insecurity and poor nutrition. Further, due to lack of resources and parental support, low-income kids generally do not engage in early learning experiences that other children are privileged to undertake.

It seems clear that we need to provide a more intensive level of support in order for low-income children to be successful academically. However, in some ways, we are working in the opposite direction. For example, schools that are located in our low-income neighborhoods (e.g., Williford, D.S. Johnson, Baskerville) have a much harder time attracting experienced teachers. As a result, positions at these schools are often filled by first-year, lateral-entry teachers, and therefore, our kids who need the most support are lacking the best support – better qualified teachers – to give them the help they need. It makes sense to, financially and otherwise, incentivize our most qualified teachers to teach at the schools that need them the most.

Second, we must seek out successful models for educating low-income children around the country. Education experts such as Eric Jensen, Ron Clark, Geoffrey Canada, and a host of others have been successfully attacking this issue for years. We need to be willing to take risks by piloting innovative approaches in our failing schools.

Third, we have to look at strategic models from other parts of the country for converting our low-income neighborhoods into mixed-income neighborhoods. It’s not an easy task, but it can be done – it already has been in many areas.

Low parental involvement at Williford is certainly one reason for poor academic performance. However, parental involvement is directly related to the economics of the neighborhood. For example, a single mom who is working two or three part-time jobs to make ends meet cannot be there to help with homework or attend PTSO meetings. The truth is that as long as we have neighborhoods that are entirely made up (or almost entirely made up) of people living below the poverty line, we will have schools that struggle.

A host of great things potentially start to happen when a neighborhood becomes a mixed-income neighborhood: Businesses start to consider locating there; crime rates decrease; schools improve; and (if developed the right way) neighbors without resources develop connections to neighbors with resources and begin to discover pathways out of poverty.

Rocky Mount is a great and giving community, and with God’s help and by His grace, we can get to where we need to be. The biggest question is not “how do we do it?” – it’s “do we actually care enough?”

JESSE LEWIS

Executive Director

Peacemakers of Rocky Mount

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