NaShonda Cooke, a veteran elementary school teacher in Durham, estimates that at least 20 of her 26 students last year came from families facing such extreme economic distress. Children who dread long weekends, school holidays or snow days, unsure what, if anything, they’ll have to eat until classes resume. Kids who know the trauma of coming home to the eviction notice or who explain they couldn’t do homework because the electricity had been cut off. Students who have scarcely traveled out of their neighborhoods, or gone to restaurants, or seen an Interstate highway, or been to the mountains or the coast. (And yet are assumed to know of such experiences on end of grade tests.)
Many are from single-parent households where the mother or, less often, the father works long hours or the night shift so that even third- or fourth-grade students go largely unsupervised and may be required to care for still younger siblings.
The profile is familiar to Brendan Fetters, a third-generation teacher who has been working at high-poverty schools in Wake County for a decade. His fifth-graders typically don’t have access to home computers, or the Internet, or books, or folks who can help with schoolwork. But that’s the least of their problems.
Their challenges are more immediate. Kids who have been up all night because of brawls or gunshots in the building. Or whose parents completely run out of money late in the month. Or who decide not to eat so their kids can. Or kids who alternate the days they’ll go hungry, in favor of brothers and sisters. Kids who aren’t allowed to be kids, much less students.
They are children who have to constantly navigate, in Fetters words, “the harshest challenges of extreme poverty.”
Fetters reports, unsurprisingly, that many teachers bail from high-poverty schools quickly as they can. But, to my astonishment, teachers like Fetters, Cooke and hundreds of others are drawn to them – in what Fetters describes as a calling within a calling. He’s prone to understatement.
The teachers make regular trips to Costco to buy food and supplies for students who wouldn’t have them otherwise. Cooke explains: “We alter clothes, we wash clothes, we give away clothes, we have a shelf arranged by size, since so many of our kids don’t have winter clothing.”
But needs move beyond the physical. “Having a male teacher, especially for these young boys, is crucial,” Fetters says. “What they want more than anything is someone who cares for them, who will spend time with them.” They want to talk, always. “I try to walk and talk with them, that seems to accomplish more than anything else,” he says with a sigh.
Fetters, like many of the teachers I interviewed, doesn’t stop at the school house door. He makes phone calls and home visits, trying to understand the perils his kids face. On occasion, he has received pushback from embarrassed or annoyed parents. More often he's had his eyes opened to deprivations, and sometimes even dangers, no child should be forced to endure.
In addition to her regular duties, Cooke directs an inspiring program called “Men of Honor” at the school. It provides a different space, a safe haven. “My boys don’t come in with their heads down,” she says. They do homework, they talk about how to treat girls, about police, about drug abuse, about preparation for the world. Grades have improved. Suspension rates have diminished. They do college tours. “I expect you to be here,” she tells the students. “I’m going to demand it of you – don’t tell me your only career chances are in rap or the NBA.”
Last year, Cooke was invited to high school graduations at three schools by students who explained they’d never have made it except for her work years earlier.
Angela Scioli plays a similar role at the high school level. She described for me the work she and her colleagues did to try to assure that one of their bright, extremely impoverished students could go to a local HBCU. “How do you fill out a complex financial aid form for a kid who has moved from place to place and person to person?” The university was great, she reported, flexibly admitting him, largely on promise.
He moved into the dorm. No sheets, no towels, no mattress pad, no suitable clothes, no bicycle, no textbooks, no laptop. “We got on Facebook and lots of teachers helped” – though they, themselves, often don’t have two dimes to rub together.
Still, she explains, “our middle class notion that if you just get some scholarship money together, things will be OK is a fantasy.” A “student has to have people he can predictably rely on; it’s more than a question of dollars.” Her words reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ explanation that “I didn’t always have things, but I always had people between the world and me.”
One of my own favorite former students is Jessica Holmes. She is now a very young Wake County commissioner. Only a little more than a decade ago, before UNC undergrad and law school, she was struggling heroically with the traumas of extreme poverty in Pender County. “I had these angel teachers that saved me,” she says, fighting back tears. “They never really spoke about it, they never made me feel guilty.” Just normal. “When you come from where I do, teachers can be the dividing line between a teenage drug user, or a pregnancy, or a committed student.” A great teacher can end inter-generational poverty one student at a time, she says.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Americans believe that education is the way out of poverty, but poverty itself is a potent barrier to learning. Numerous N.C. teachers are fighting to breach that barrier.
Part 1: An overview
TODAY: The heartbreaking challenges some students face
Part 3: The remarkable work of teachers