Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Woodville Elementary students Communities in Schools aims to boost graduation rates for inner city Richmond students by helping them surmount a deep-rooted culture of poverty.

by James A. Bacon

The City of Richmond has more concentrated poverty than Baltimore, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C. Five to six generations of inner-city poor have been raised in housing projects under the mantle of the welfare state and its perverse incentives. The combination of poverty and family dysfunction make life horrendous in ways that middle-class Americans cannot imagine. The children pay a terrible price.

Consider... The only meals that some children eat are the ones they get at school. Many go home to empty houses where there is no food in the cupboard, no furniture and no electricity.

That's assuming, of course, that students even have homes to go to. Homelessness is a silent epidemic. Few children sleep on the streets but many have unstable living arrangements, bunking with family members or friends. So many families float from one address to another, often outside the school district, that the student turnover in a few Richmond schools runs 40% to 60% during the school year.

Some mothers are so overwhelmed, disengaged or ill-educated that their children don't know their ABCs, can't count to 10 and can't even name the colors when they get to Kindergarten.

Until recently, school teachers and administrators grappled with those challenges every day. Despite spending $13,500 per student, significantly more than neighboring jurisdictions, Richmond students dropped out at a higher rate and under-performed in standardized tests. The challenges of inter-generational poverty are hard to overcome. "How do you achieve success when students have so much baggage?" asks Rosalind Taylor, principal at Woodville Elementary School, located in one of the city's poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

Now, in partnership with the not-for-profit Communities in Schools of Richmond (CIS) program, Richmond city schools may be making real headway. CIS addresses children's family issues which schools are ill equipped to deal with. In 2011, CIS coordinators provided intensive, case-managed services to 2,046 students, connecting them with resources they needed to function at school. Drawing from government and not-for-profit organizations, coordinators lined up food, clothing, tutors, mental health counselors, health care, transportation -- occasionally even furniture for children's homes. Says President Harold Fitrer: "We arrange the services that allow children to focus on learning and teachers to focus on teaching."

According to figures compiled from the organization's case files, 73% of the students assisted by CIS improved attendance in 2011, 82% improved behavior, 80% improved academic performance and 95% were promoted to the next grade.

James E. Ukrop, a board member and one of Richmond's leading philanthropists, is a huge fan. CIS changes lives, he says. His dream is to install extended-day programs in every school "until we break the cycle of poverty."

CIS's $2.4 million budget this year is a tiny fraction of Richmond's $153 million public school budget. But helping students graduate and become productive citizens will save multi-millions in the cost of crime, incarceration and welfare. Says Ukrop: "There's a great business case for investing money up front."

Investing money up front to save money down the road is the same argument proffered for dozens of government programs and not-for-profit initiatives that, collectively, have yet to stem the tide of poverty. What makes Communities in Schools different? The program, backers say, supply a critical missing piece of the social safety net. Government and not-for-profit organizations offer a range of resources but a mechanism has been lacking to allocate those resources to where they do the most good. Agencies and not-for-profits operate in silos, typically not communicating. Poor parents (usually poor single mothers) lack the skills to negotiate the social services bureaucracy. Idealistic, well-intentioned volunteers show up at schools but there is no one whose job it is to deploy them effectively. CIS caseworkers make a difference by establishing relationships with children, learning their individual circumstances and steering resources to where they are needed.

Tamiko Williams, a CIS coordinator at Martin Luther King Elementary School, tells the story of one of the 50 to 60 children she sees daily. A young boy was running in the hallway, had an accident and had to go to the hospital. Williams picked up the mother, who had no transportation of her own, and took them to the hospital. As Williams got to know the family, she learned more about the boy's predicament. The father had been abusive and now was in jail -- the boy had seen him on the TV news getting arrested -- and the boy's older sister was pregnant. His mother was unemployed. Focusing on the lad's particular issues, Williams found a mentor to help with school work, connected him with Child Savers to address his anger-management issues and put the mother touch with a program that would help her find a job.

Communities in Schools, a national network founded in New York City 30 years ago, has become one of the nation's leading dropout prevention organizations. Active in 28 states plus Washington, D.C., the program has a presence in 2,700 schools. In Virginia, there are CIS affiliates in Richmond, Chesterfield County and Portsmouth, and others are being organized. Of the Virginia programs, the Richmond chapter has grown the largest. It is now active in 30 of the City of Richmond's 38 schools plus three in Henrico County, and has plans to continue expanding.

Five years ago Richmond CIS launched the Performance Learning Center (PLC), a program designed for high school kids in danger of dropping out. Modeled as a public-private partnership between the city school system and CIS, the PLC deals with kids who typically have chaotic home lives, have been held back one or two years, and have a lot of ground to make up.

Many students have attendance issues, says Rose Marie Wiegandt, services coordinator. The staff expends considerable effort just getting the kids to school, tracking them down at home, if need be. "If you didn't have anyone telling you to get up and go to school, would you have done it?" she asks. "In many cases, these kids don't have anyone telling them." The program also finds resources to help kids deal with family and emotional issues and makes sure they are fed.

The program has delivered impressive results. In the first year, 90% of these high drop-out risks ended up graduating. Today, the graduation rate is 98%. Last year, 191 kids graduated from the program -- almost the equivalent of an entire high school class.

It became evident soon after the PLC program got started that the students' problems began long before they entered high school. As Harold explains, dropping out isn't an event, a decision that a child makes one day. It's a process in which a child falls farther and farther behind, gets held back, becomes increasingly discouraged and skips school with greater frequency until he (or she) just stops coming. Accordingly, CIS has expanded into middle and elementary schools to head off the downward spiral at a younger age.

One of the program's biggest contributions is making sure that kids get fed. Schools provide free breakfast and lunch to poor students, but that's not always enough. Sometimes, the food stamps run out before the end of the month. Sometimes, parents sell the food stamps on the black market and blow the money on booze, drugs or lottery tickets. Occasionally, the parents don't even apply. Whatever the reason, many children get no food at home. Partnering with the local food bank, every Friday CIS provides cinch bags loaded with easy-to-prepare meals that the kids can take home for the weekend.

The organization also uses the lure of food to coax parents into attending Parent Teacher Association meetings. Mobile pantries hand out free meals when parents come to school. The bait wasn't very successful initially but results improved when CIS learned to time the events for late in the month -- after the food stamps had run out.

Working in concert with school administrators, CIS coordinators identify children who need clothing, shoes, school supplies and eye glasses. They find resources for anger management and grief counseling. They line up transportation for young children scared to walk to school through housing projects where they might be assaulted.

The social services are buttressed by positive messages telling children that they can succeed if they apply themselves and are supplemented by practical knowledge -- sometimes as basic as learning how to use a knife and fork -- they might not learn at home. Says Rosalind Taylor, the Woodville principal: "We want our children to become goal setters. We want our children to become productive citizens, not takers."

"There is no end to the kids we need to see," says Harold. But "we know we can turn things around."


This article was made possible by a Bon Secours of Virginia Health Systems sponsorship.



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