The number of children living in poverty is no secret in North Carolina. In one of the most economically vibrant states of the richest nation on earth, nearly 600,000 of our children live below the stingy federal threshold. We do our best not to think about it.
But not all of us have that luxury. Some can’t avoid looking into its face.
In schools across North Carolina, thousands of teachers work in classrooms dominated by students living in deep poverty, children always fighting through the struggles and pressures of the moment.
“The brightest and most privileged kids are smarter than ever,” says Angela Scioli, a 22-year veteran teacher in Wake County schools. “Our poor kids are poorer than they’ve ever been. Being poor used to mean just that you didn’t have money. Now that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Americans famously believe that education is the way out of poverty. But poverty is a potent barrier to education as well. It should have surprised no one that on North Carolina’s new report card, almost all high-poverty schools received Ds and Fs while almost all low-poverty schools got As and Bs. This series examines the contributions of teachers fighting to breach poverty’s barrier – educators who with remarkable skill, affection and selflessness commit to what Brendan Fetters, an elementary school teacher in Raleigh, describes as “a calling within a calling.”
The brightest and most privileged kids are smarter than ever. Our poor kids are poorer than they’ve ever been. Being poor used to mean you didn’t have money. Now that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Angela Scioli, 22-year veteran teacher, Wake County schools
When a fifth-grader hasn’t had enough to eat or has been up all night because of fights in the neighborhood, concentrating on learning is difficult, Fetters says. Poverty is the elephant in the classroom – never mentioned, but affecting everything.
“It’s hard for an 11-year-old to focus when she has to go home and take care of a younger brother or cook dinner for the rest of the family,” he says. Or when a child, whose mother works the late shift, has to stay up all night with a sick baby. It’s not realistic to expect that, under such pressures, students will perform at 4 or 5 levels on end of grade exams, he says.
The stories teachers of impoverished students relate can sear, revealing hurdles and hardship beyond toleration for ones so young. They also often illustrate the surpassing service, and heart, of some of the best of us – service that, stunningly, is frequently met with derision and disdain by much of our political class. For this, perhaps, no outrage can be sufficient.
Nor is it possible to refute the growing sense, among such near-heroic educators, that they are being set up for failure as scarce resources are diverted to private systems, essential assistants are eliminated, state support levels plummet to the national cellar and high-poverty schools are disparaged with grading measures that speak only to the economic hardship of their students. As several teachers explained, the state grades them on things beyond their control, pronounces them failures and then makes it harder for them to do their work. For this, too, no excuse can satisfy.
“The Title I schools,” Fetters notes, “are extraordinarily taxing – day in and day out, facing the tough challenges of poverty.” They aren’t the schools the superintendent goes to visit. “The politicians who say we’re failing never come here, either,” he notes. It is apparently more fruitful to visit the new (and wealthy) institutions in Apex and Cary. The pattern isn’t lost on teachers.
We’re supposed to get high performance, but when you’re hungry or worrying your siblings won’t get enough to eat, a math problem is the last thing you’re interested in.
NaShonda Cooke, a 16-year veteran teacher in Durham
In Durham, NaShonda Cooke, a 16-year veteran teacher, knows well the challenges poor children face, situations that have only worsened over the past decade as parents have lost jobs or, more often, started working longer hours for poorer wages. The kids try to hide it.
“I’ll go on a home visit and there’s no food, no furniture – the children say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone, Ms. Cooke, we’re OK.” But, she explains, “I grew up in public housing myself. I know why they’re acting out.”
Fortunately for these children, it is their lives and not the opinions of folks at the statehouse that teachers care about, Cooke says. Inspiration springs from their faces, from the opportunity to improve their life chances. If there is any truth to the notion that you make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give, these teachers’ lives are beyond abundant.
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.
Today: An overview
Part 2: The heartbreaking challenges some students face
Part 3: The remarkable work of teachers
The sad NC facts
More than a quarter of our children are impoverished. For kids 5 and under, the rate is 28 percent. Twelve percent of Tar Heel children endure extreme poverty – living on incomes of less than $12,200 a year for a family of four. Double the national average. Fourteen percent live in concentrated poverty, neighborhoods where very high percentages of residents are poor. Last year, over a half-million North Carolina kids didn’t get enough to eat. Over 50,000 were homeless.
And race, of course, skews our childhood poverty. Forty percent of Native American children, 39 percent of African-American and 41 percent of Hispanic kids are poor – as opposed to 14 percent of whites. Almost half of children of color under 6 are impoverished. We’re also losing ground. In the 1990s, North Carolina’s child poverty rate was lower (better) than that of most states. Today we’re 11th highest.