Poverty presents challenges for Lake County school districts
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org January 2, 2014 11:02PM
The number of students living in poverty has increased significantly in a handful of Lake County school districts, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2012. | Post-Tribune file photo
Poverty in Lake County schools
Thanks to large increases since 2008, five Lake County school districts ranked in the top 10 statewide in 2012 for highest percentage of students living in poverty. They include:
Gary Community School Corp.: 56%, up 19 percentage points
School City of East Chicago:
49%, up 15 percentage points
Lake Ridge Schools:
43%, up 15 percentage points
River Forest Community Schools:
36%, up 9.5 percentage points
School City of Hammond:
36%, up 9.5 percentage points
Updated: February 4, 2014 6:09AM
The number of students living in poverty has increased significantly in a handful of Lake County school districts.
And in Gary, the portion of students living in poverty has jumped about 50 percent in five years.
Those increases mean more trouble not only for the students struggling to learn while going through the stress of poverty but also for the districts, which must find ways to help these students perform well academically despite those economic challenges.
According to U.S. Census Bureau numbers for 2012, Gary Community School Corp. yet again topped the state, having the largest percentage of students living in poverty — 56 percent. Although that number barely rose from 2011, it is in stark contrast to 2008, when the corporation had 37 percent of students living in poverty.
The district isn’t alone in Lake County. The School City of East Chicago was next-lowest in the state, at 49 percent, and Lake Ridge Schools was fourth at 43 percent.
River Forest Community School Corp. and the School City of Hammond also made the top 10. Each of those districts saw the percent of students living in poverty grow by 9 percentage points or more since 2008.
Poverty affects people in many ways, including educationally. Lora Battle Bailey, dean of Indiana University Northwest’s School of Education, said studies since the 1940s have shown a connection between the two.
“Whenever there is an increase in poverty, there’s no question there’s going to be a decrease in educational outcomes,” she said.
The biggest issue has to do with what is called the hierarchies of need. A person’s most basic needs are providing food and shelter. Most people don’t have to worry about those needs being met, so they can move on to other concerns, such as worrying about getting good grades. But people living in poverty often struggle to pay the bills and keep food on the table, meaning education becomes a lower priority.
Although children themselves normally don’t face these worries, they often still deal with the stress that results; they can hear their parents fight, for instance, or they know they don’t have enough clothes to wear, Bailey said.
“That certainly does impact children’s ability to concentrate on educational matters,” she said.
Other factors also play a role, such as a family in poverty being much less likely able to afford to pay for pre-kindergarten education.
When a large portion of a student body lives in poverty, however, it also starts affecting other students. Bailey said that along with learning math, English and other normal subjects, students also learn social knowledge at school. A student might not go to another country or even another city, but if a classmate has, the student can learn about that place by talking with his peers. Students in a district with a high poverty rate won’t have as much of a chance to be around students whose families have the money to afford costly experiences, however.
“If I’m not in a class who can at least talk to me about those things, I can’t even vicariously experience those things,” Bailey said. “It matters who you go to school with.”
Then there’s what Bailey called the “happy effect”: Students who are happy generally talk about the good events in their lives with other students, spreading cheer. Students suffering stress aren’t as likely to be happy, however, so they don’t spread good will in the same way.
Bailey said schools can combat these problems through high-quality teachers, especially in younger students. Teachers who are trained in dealing with young children can help engage them even if their parents don’t, Bailey said.
“There’s no question that teacher quality is at the core of what we need, especially in areas of high poverty,” she said.
Jim Rice, superintendent at River Forest, said his district is aware of these issues and is trying to work with students to deal with them, such as by keeping class sizes down and providing social counseling to students. The district also tries to hold the line on the cost of extracurricular activities so that impoverished students can still participate.
“We try to look at the whole student, not just the student in the classroom but their outside needs as well,” Rice said.
These goals are made harder by cuts in funding to schools from the state government. Rice said the district is looking at a cut of $850,000 from the previous year.
“We are going to struggle, and the primary reason is our funding,” he said.
Not everyone agrees that schools should focus on areas outside of traditional learning, however. Gary lawyer Tony Walker, who sits on the Indiana Board of Education, said he doesn’t think it’s fair to expect schools to solve these social problems.
“You start getting into a real blurry area there where you start confusing schools with other social services,” he said. “I don’t know that school is going to be the right place to do a lot of that.”
He added that although he would like to see some services offered more in school, such as counseling, districts like Gary and River Forest already receive considerably more funding from the federal government than districts with low rates of students living poverty, such as Munster, which gets about half as much funding per pupil as Gary does.
“I probably get more complaints around this issue from residents of Munster than anyone from Gary or East Chicago,” he said.
Walker added that he thinks Gary, at least, could improve the situation for all students by closing down more schools, which would make resources available to more students.