How Can We Make a Difference for America’s Poor?

Poor Kids

“Don’t go into the teachers’ lounge,” she said.  “They put out contracts on kids in there.  And don’t let the cynics jade you.”

An African-American woman who brooked no nonsense, she demanded that every student in her class give maximum effort.  She taught across the hall from me my first year teaching, and I learned from her the things that were never addressed in education classes—how to build relationships and set high expectations.  I knew how to teach a novel, how to teach students to write, but watching her taught me those essentials of classroom management that have to happen before students can learn anything.

I had come from an all-white, all-Protestant, mostly evangelical background.  As a student, I never learned in a class with anyone of color or of a non-Protestant faith until I enrolled in college, and even then most students shared my skin color and religion.  But all things considered, I managed pretty well my first year with occasional hints from my colleague.  I had five classes of eager, engaged kids and one class of rowdy eighth graders, mostly from poor families, who had no interest in Hawthorne or Welty.  I didn’t get them interested until I discovered they loved Poe and brought in a Stephen King short story.  They occasionally pelted chalk at me when I wrote on the board, teaching me early that an overhead projector worked better than a chalkboard because I didn’t have to turn my back to them.

Because of my mentor’s example, I never visited a teachers’ lounge until the beginning of my third year, when I transferred to the high school and didn’t have my classroom during my one planning period.  When I visited the teachers’ lounge, the smoky air looked like a foggy river valley in early morning, but it smelled as if the building were burning down.  And I hadn’t been there ten minutes before a teacher warned everyone who would listen about a troubled student.  Remembering my mentor’s advice, I retreated to the library.

But not once in those nine years in southern West Virginia did I ever hear a colleague say, “These kids can’t…”—even when students were functionally illiterate.  Since then, I’ve worked for 28 years in a suburban school system that consistently ranks among the top schools in journalist Jay Mathews’ Challenge Index.  It is a school system rich in resources and opportunities that teachers in southern West Virginia can only dream of.  And yet, I can’t begin to count the number of times over the years that I’ve heard fellow teachers proclaim, “These kids can’t…”

And so, when I read an article by Trip Gabriel in last Sunday’s New York Times about the challenges of poverty in southern West Virginia, I wanted to cheer for the teacher who, unlike me, stayed to help those children who, like me, have grown up in poverty. A 34-year-old mother of a three-year-old who will attend these “failing” schools, teacher Florisha McGuire says, “I really believe it is my mission to do this and to give these kids a chance.”

I cheer, too, for 15-year-old Emalee Short, who reminds me of myself when she says, “I want to be one of the ones who gets out of here.”

Gabriel cites some startling statistics on poverty in the United States:

Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States—defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades—85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white…

And yet most of the money, both government and private, that is being contributed to fight poverty goes to urban areas.  Just last Sunday, CBS’ 60 Minutes did a segment on how much money billionaire Paul Tudor Jones has raised through his charity, the Robin Hood Foundation, to provide educational opportunities in New York City schools.  Often controversial, Jones has been perhaps more well-known for helping oust UVA’s female president, who was later reinstated, and for making unwise comments at UVA about how female employees lose their business focus when they have children.

But there is no question that Jones’ foundation has done much to give hope to New York’s poor—and especially to children.  According to the 60 Minutes piece, he raised 57 million one year and 81 million the next from donors the emcee at the event laughingly called the top 1% of the 1%.  And there is no question that the programs funded by these uber-rich have made a difference in the lives of the uber-poor.

But little attention is given to the other 85% until an election looms.  In 2012 the United States Department of Education hosted a Cross-Country Back-to-School Bus Tour that included my home county in West Virginia.  A local teacher who went on that tour told me she had never seen schools with such a lack of resources.  Since then, 28 million tax dollars have funded special programs in one West Virginia county—an amount that is only 1/5 of the amount that Jones’ foundation has contributed to NYC schools.

So where is the money for the 85% of schools that are not in urban areas that get attention from philanthropists like Paul Tudor Jones and Bill Gates—the wealthy who insist that charter schools with innovative ideas are the answer to our woes?  Who will help the poor children on Indian reservations, in the Mississippi Delta, and in my home state in Appalachia?

I escaped because my parents, who had a fifth-grade and a ninth-grade education, preached to me every day of my life that education was the key to a better life.  And 50 years after the War on Poverty began, education is still the key.  But when will we carry that beacon of hope beyond our cities and into the parts of America that so moved Presidents Kennedy and Johnson when they actually made the effort to go see it for themselves?

We can.  We must.  100% of America’s poor need us.  So let’s figure it out.  Together.  You.  Me.  And the 1% and the uber 1%.  Because these kids can.  If we can…ever find a way…to work together.

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