Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Woodville Elementary School pupils. Photo credit: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

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 of $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 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. Read more.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


18 responses to “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty”

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Incredible article. Most importantly, it shows how so many lives are being touched and turned around one child at a time.

    Some such non-profits have focused with great success on filling the gap (offering a place for students to learn and play) between the end of school and when parent(s) come home. They also involve parent(s), wrapping them into the learning process. Done a child at a time, results are dramatic.

    Along these lines there are also some wonderful life changing programs started up not so long ago in New Orleans.

  2. It does not have to be an urban school to have these kinds of problems but I will admit it’s a persistent problem for urban areas.

    But rural schools have a similar problem in that mom/dad are descendants of farmers and the family farm has gone away and the kids who become moms/dads who never got a solid enough education to do much more than farming are not strong enablers for their kids education.

    So the rural schools establish after school programs that attract the parents to attend with their kids and to become more appreciative and more supportive of the school to help their kids grow up to be able to compete for better jobs.

    The reason johnnie can’t read or write is not the fault of a parent who also cannot read and write and who only knows agrarian work skills to make a living.

    sometimes I think we focus too much on the urban “cycle of poverty” without really recognizing that it’s a larger problem than just urban poverty and that required attendance public schools funded by citizens is the most reliable path for most kids.

    I do not see us fixing this problem without govt taxation but perhaps others do.

  3. chris bonney Avatar
    chris bonney

    Congratulations to the CIS! In the early 70s I was the News Leader’s district manager for Church Hill. Those of us who worked in such neighborhoods (e.g. Blackwell, Highland Park, pre-gentrified Jackson Ward and Randolph) tended to be a little older college students and recognized that our jobs required that we be not only distribution managers and collection agents for the newspaper, but also de facto social workers for the kids who carried paper routes. Sometimes the kids had their teachers interact with us instead of their parents/grandparents because they felt we were more dependable. Sometimes we had to protect kids from abuse by parents, grandparents and guardians. Sometimes riding around in our company cars for the afternoon and early evening hours was the safest place these children had in their non-school hours. I was much more idealistic in those days, and believed that each generation made strides, however incremental. But when I spent time in some of the places where my carriers lived my belief was tested. Some young single parents were so wasted on drugs that it was hard to believe they’d become better parents while there was still time to make a difference in their children’s lives. A few of “my” kids made it out. Some succumbed to drugs. At least one is spending his life in prison as a result of having become even a passive player in the infamous Briley Gang.

    1. Here’s what I fear: Many of the “kids” you knew in the 1970s are now grandparents. There have been two more generations of concentrated poverty and welfare since then. Is life for the children of poverty better now… or worse?

      1. there is no question that many public schools in urban areas have an abysmal record but it’s also true that there are some notable exceptions.

        we have public schools that are making significant progress towards things they have previously failed at.

        If we’re going to post “success” stories for non-public approaches, how about we post some of the notable success public schools also?

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Good post, Jim

  5. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    You want to cry then see a way out. Let’s nominate Bacon for a Pulitzer. How about it, Peter?

  6. I give Jim B credit for this and other articles for his adherence to verifiable facts that support his premises…though he does tend to go off tracks now and then on some things.. from an ideological perspective.

    Jim B is your quintessential RINO – long since banned from the GOP and now wandering in the wilderness!

    He’d rather eat dog doo that spout liberal dogma …that’s true… but he also realizes that the GOP has veered so far to the right that they pulled the political rug from under him.

    I have no doubt he voted for Romney, though!


    just felt the need to “juice” things up here… ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      You wrote an excellent commentary above too, Larry.

      Just when I think you’re fallen totally off the deep end, you pop back totally normal. It’s the damnest thing.

    2. Larry, You’re right about the dog poo and liberal dogma part. I don’t think I’ve been banned from the GOP… yet. But I do have a big problem with extreme cultural conservatives. My days may be numbered. As for whom I voted, I’ll never say.

  7. I doubt that Jim would agree!


  8. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Jim’s article mentions CIS work with Performance Learning Centers (PLCs) network of non-traditional high schools. Look at their performance record.

    Then compare their achievements with the problem they’re working to help resolve. For that perspective go to There on the Gates Foundation Website (Compete College America) see their latest report on our Broken College Remediation System.

    When you match the CIS/PLC team accomplishments against the Problem as it is defined by the Gates Foundation Study, the conclusion is obvious.

    CIS/PLC is doing extremely valuable work at where the rubber meets the road – giving our youth the means to succeed, thus build everyone’s future.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      PS I wonder what’s the cost of this program per year per student?

  9. the funding for CIS/PLC is a bit murky but they apparently do seek government “grants” (as well as non-govt grants) – but specificity is lacking overall.

    that’s never a good sign for me…. I do not care how “good” they say they are – I want to see a bottom line for costs… as well as performance.

    the basic premise here is that conventional public schools fail at this effort and that “innovation” is needed but often the “innovation” wants a different standard than the school system for evaluation – as well as money that the school system also competes for.

    It’s almost as if we’ve given up on the public school system and feel that it cannot be reformed and the only choice is to abandon it.

    For every kid that CIS/PLC “rescues”, there are 10 more that are not and still attend public school.

    No child left behind – held the public school system accountable for ALL students and they were prohibited from leaving some behind so that others could be helped.

    But what is going on here is essentially a reversion to a system where some kids are left behind again.

    If could well be that this has to be the ugly answer but if it is then why would public schools be held to a different, stricter standard?

    My view here is tentative, subject to Jim and/or others convincing me of the error of my ways but I expect facts and evidence not philosophical wanderings.

    1. CIS does not want to leave any kids behind. It started in Richmond as a program to reduce high school dropouts. Realizing that the problems began far earlier than high school, it expanded into middle school and elementary school. Obviously, with finite resources, they can’t rescue everybody. But I do believe that is their long-term goal.

  10. re: long term goals

    of alternative approaches to the problem – using Federal/State dollars


    long-term goals of public schools towards the same goal

    I do not begrudge competition at all.. I would like to see schools challenged in fact..

    but cherry-picking and working off different standards that forces the public schools to deal with tougher standards and goals vs alternative approaches that nibble around the edges – without real accountability for their funding, spending and performance is no real competition.

    It’s instead de-facto abandonment of the current goals that public schools are held to account for.

    Again – I am not opposed to competition at all.. I support it but approaches that don’t require level playing fields for funding and expectations is not real competition, its de-facto abandonment of current goals and expectations.

    I’d like to see a much better accounting of CIS from a funding and performance perspective before I’d sign on to that approach.

    their initial goal of “helping” dropouts was deeply flawed as they soon found out so then they changed their goals and they sound a LOT LIKE public school early elementary goals which begs the question since some public schools, even some in urban areas have innovated and ramped up their programs to effectively deal with the problems.

    we need to not destroy what is already working in my view.

  11. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    We cannot fail our children, but right now we plainly are. That is not acceptable. It’s immoral.

    Whoever steps forward to reverse this, be they public or private, I support.

    And experience tell me, the more who are trying, the better. Because what succeeds are lessons learned for others to emulate. In battle, you first save all you can and then learn the lessons necessary to save all but the very few.

    CIS/PLC and others, including public institutions, on this mission must be supported to the hilt. This is not about politics, philosophy, power, ideology. It’s about lives, young lives, our future and the future of our children. A society that fails their children is a society not worth having.

    We’re a society far better than that. CIS and others are testament to it.

  12. I just want to point out here that none of the countries that put us in 15th place in math and science and reading are countries that use private rather than public schools to achieve their ranking.

    they are all public schools, however, most of them teach ONLY core academics rather than have the wide range of electives, sports and other amenities that we offer.

    from elementary school to graduation – they concentrate on core academics.

Leave a Reply