Brad Busby has seen the effects of poverty rise in the Riverview Gardens School District in the 15 years he’s been a counselor there, and he believes it has hurt student success.
“Hunger. Exhaustion,” he said, ticking off the circumstances that confront pupils daily at Glasgow Elementary School. First-graders with post-traumatic stress disorder. Children whose families have faced multiple evictions. “Sometimes the parents aren’t there at night,” he continued. “I did a home visit last month. There were 19 people in that house.”
They are the trappings of poverty. And where poverty is found, so too, is academic struggle.
The correlation between high-poverty schools and low academic achievement sounds obvious, and it is well-documented over decades. But as Missouri has had perhaps its deepest conversation to date about the state of its failing schools, the connection between poverty and performance has never been so plain.
Data analysis by the Post-Dispatch shows that in schools with some of the highest concentrations of poverty and minority children, students are a third as likely to pass state exams as students at schools of higher affluence. And at several of such high schools, they’re half as likely to graduate.
It’s a chasm few schools are crossing. On one side are successful schools, where three-quarters of students have parents of means. On the other side are struggling schools, where all but a handful of children come from challenging economic backgrounds.
Addressing the disparity in a way that brings results still eludes most educators.
“What is it that changes in the school, in the students, in the administration, when the poverty level changes?” asked Mark Tranel, director of Public Policy Research Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and member of the Riverview Gardens Special Administrative Board. “Something has to be going on that’s different.”
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is attempting new ways to improve learning in troubled districts such as Normandy and Riverview Gardens, both overwhelmingly African-American, where steep drops in property value and income levels have accompanied academic decline.
The call to action reached a crescendo last summer when the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a law that allows children in unaccredited districts to transfer into better schools, with their home district paying the cost.
As a result, about 2,200 students in Normandy and Riverview Gardens — both in north St. Louis County — left for better schools in more affluent districts, draining both school systems of resources.
The crisis prompted the Missouri Legislature to amend the transfer law to soften its impact on struggling school districts. It has also led the Missouri Board of Education to take a more active role in remaking failing districts, while demanding state involvement whenever the learning gap between rich and poor children exceeds that of the state.
But neither action addresses the high concentration of poverty in the state’s worst schools.
“To educate children from poverty is complicated,” said Russell Still of Columbia, a member of the state Board of Education who spent several years as a classroom teacher in Detroit. “I learned how hard it is. You have to do a lot of things besides just trying to do instruction.”
Now, the state board is set to consider on Tuesday a proposal to reconstitute the Normandy school system, a district nearly bankrupt, where the percentage of homeless children has more than tripled since 2008. The concentration of poverty has increased by 20 percent in 10 years. Nine out of 10 children are now on federally subsidized lunches, a marker of poverty.
The proposal will come from an appointed panel of educators, alumni and former lawmakers that has wrestled with Normandy’s future since March.
“We have to get the instruction right,” said Carole Basile, chairwoman of the panel and dean of the College of Education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We understand that we can only get them so far and then we’ve got to make sure the wraparound services are in place. To deal with the transiency. The kids who haven’t seen the dentist. These are somebody’s responsibilities. It ends up being the school’s.”
Missouri’s debate over failing school districts has come at a time when the state’s own data show how deeply the income divide has become.
The education department released for the first time last summer performance scores for every school across the state, using various measures such as standardized test results, ACT scores, graduation rates and attendance.
Based on a Post-Dispatch analysis of that data, roughly 50 schools in the St. Louis area did so poorly last year they would be considered unaccredited. In those schools:
• 92 percent of students received federally subsidized lunches.
• 95 percent of students are minorities.
• 87 percent is the mobility rate — the number of transfers in or out of the school divided by the total enrollment.
• Less than 20 percent of children tested at grade level or better on state reading and math exams.
At higher-performing schools, the nearly 400 in the region that did well enough to be considered accredited, the factors were essentially reversed:
• 36 percent of students received federally subsidized lunches.
• 28 percent of children are minorities.
• 27 percent is the mobility rate.
• 60 percent or more students scored proficient or advanced in state reading or math exams.
Data from Illinois show a similar correlation in the Metro East area. Districts with the highest concentrations of poverty — such as East St. Louis, Venice, Brooklyn and Cahokia school districts — perform the worst.
Academic struggle is greatest where poverty is high. But that’s only one way of looking at the gap.
It’s also true that children from poor households, on average, trail their peers most everywhere. That gap exists even in affluent and successful school districts such as Ladue and Parkway.
The economic divide can also be found among schools in a single district.
In St. Louis Public Schools, the three highest-performing schools have the lowest poverty levels in the city. In fact, the poverty rate at Kennard Classical Junior Academy, one of the best elementary schools in the state, is lower than either of the two elementary schools in Brentwood, an affluent district in St. Louis County.
However, in the city’s 18 worst district schools, 97 percent of children come from poverty, Superintendent Kelvin Adams has said.
“There’s a strong correlation,” Adams said. “You can’t walk away from the correlation no matter what you do. You just can’t.”
In a visit to St. Louis recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said few — if any — tasks are more important than trying to help a child overcome poverty through education.
But the poverty barrier is a stubborn one. It often drives the quality of a child’s diet. It usually indicates the education level of parents, how often a child is spoken to at home, whether they’re exposed to high levels of stress and whether they face violence in their neighborhoods.
“These communities are poor because the families are poor,” Duncan said after a conference at the America’s Center. “Why are these families poor? Because the vast majority of parents didn’t get a great education.”
Even so, Duncan and education reformers have long argued that poverty shouldn’t be used as an excuse for any child’s academic struggles.
“You can’t be satisfied to save a couple kids and leave the rest to drown,” Duncan said.
Organizations such as Teach for America and KIPP, a successful charter school organization, take a no-excuses approach to helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Through various strategies, such as high-energy teaching and longer school days, they’ve found some success. It’s the underlying philosophy at North Side Community School, an elementary charter school housed inside a former orphanage on North Euclid Avenue. Ninety-eight percent of children at the school come from poverty, and yet more than half of them passed reading and math exams last year.
School leaders largely credit the teaching staff.
But there are other ingredients at the school that target the effects of poverty. The school provides free preschool for 4-year-olds, financed by private donors, to help boost early vocabulary and other forms of comprehension. Teachers do home visits. No classroom has more than 15 children. Children second grade and up are in school until 5 p.m.
Many skeptics contend that successful charter schools may be weeding out children with bad behavior and children who are behind academically. They question whether their longer days and teaching strategies could ever prove successful in district schools.
And yet, there are early signs of academic rebirth in the Jennings School District, where Superintendent Tiffany Anderson is using approaches she used leading a high-performing charter school in Kansas City.
Since arriving in 2012, she has fired two dozen ineffective teachers and principals, while working with a community partner to open a food bank. The district also has cut administrative positions to afford services such as dinner for children who otherwise might go hungry.
As children streamed through the doors at Glasgow Elementary one recent morning, Busby, the school counselor, had been there an hour already.
If the day were to unfold like most, he’d have children coming into his office with accounts of trauma. Some may report abuse, an eviction, or bring tales of the electricity being shut off.
“I’m not saying it’s every child,” Busby said. “We just have large numbers. Our parents are unemployed. Our parents are single, for the most part, with three, four children. There are not jobs in this area.”
In fields of research, there’s uncertainty whether poverty itself causes low academic achievement, or whether it’s tied more to emotional needs not being met at home.
Researchers at Washington University released a study in October of 305 preschoolers that found two key brain structures that were smaller in poor children — one that affects emotional health, and another critical to learning and memory. However, the researchers also found that a nurturing home life may offset some of the negative changes in brain anatomy.
At Glasgow Elementary, 98 percent of the 323 pupils receive subsidized lunches, according to the district. In the five years Busby has worked there, he’s seen a rise in social and emotional problems. “Not poverty itself,” he said, “but the things that poverty brings.”
He has a stack of papers on his desk — cases of children who need the services of specialists, such as child psychiatrists. Yet, more often than not, parents don’t have transportation to get their children to an appointment when he can help secure one.
Riverview Gardens borders the northern edge of St. Louis. Its subdivisions were developed mostly after World War II to attract middle-class whites in the city who wanted front lawns, attached garages and good schools.
But as African-Americans later moved into the area, many whites uprooted and left for St. Charles County, leaving behind a school district that is now overwhelmingly African-American and poor.
Children at Lewis & Clark Elementary get to school by walking through Castle Point, a subdivision of broken windows and weedy front yards with street names such as Prince and Baron drives.
“When 1.5 million white people try to distance themselves from a half-million African-Americans, there are consequences,” said Tranel, the UMSL researcher. “This could be one of them.”
Median household income has dropped 16 percent, adjusted for inflation, from 2007 to 2012, to $31,125. And 45 percent of homes in Riverview Gardens were rentals.
Children in Riverview Gardens transfer in and out of schools at rates four times higher than those in accredited school systems. High mobility is another hallmark of low-performing schools, adding another layer of complication to improving the education of children there.
At Glasgow Elementary, “I have had families up and move, and they never told us,” Busby said. “I’ve had families that have enrolled here, and I never got records from another school. You come to find out that the family has moved the children to three different schools, and the records are two years behind.”
In St. Louis, the mobility problem is the worst in the state. Nineteen schools had mobility rates that exceeded 100 percent last year, according to state data.
“It’s linked to poverty,” Superintendent Adams said. “If you don’t have a stable environment, if you’re moving from place to place, how can you focus on school?”
HELP AT A PRICE
Every morning before dawn, Holly Adams says goodbye to her two daughters and niece who walk to Glasgow Elementary. There they catch buses for schools in the Mehlville School District in south St. Louis County.
It’s been an exhausting year.
“I did it for the better education,” Adams said. She feels her children are doing better than they did at Glasgow and the other schools in Riverview Gardens, mostly because they tell her they’re enjoying school more.
Data suggest they are likely receiving a better education, based on how well disadvantaged students do in Mehlville schools versus those in their home district.
But what Adams said she didn’t know is that in Mehlville, children from disadvantaged backgrounds still perform 20 percentage points or more below their wealthier peers on state reading and math exams. There’s also an 8-point difference in graduation rates.
And the racial gap in Mehlville is even wider, with a 30 percentage-point difference between how white and black children perform on standardized exams.
This is notable because the overwhelming majority of children who transferred from Riverview Gardens and Normandy are black and come from low-income families.
“We’re not knocking it out of the park when it comes to educating kids who are less fortunate or coming from poverty-stricken homes,” said Eric Knost, superintendent of Mehlville schools. “Success in public education in the United States is correlated to impoverished neighborhoods and communities. The connection is there, and people just have to own up to it.”
To be sure, economically disadvantaged children do better in higher-performing districts than in schools where poverty is highly concentrated. Nevertheless, the economic gap appears in nearly all school districts in Missouri.
And economically disadvantaged students are falling further behind their more affluent classmates, based on reading scores. The gap in math has narrowed, but only by a single percentage point since 2008.
This is of particular concern because poor children comprise a greater percentage of Missouri’s public school population each year, making up half of enrollment last year, up from 40 percent in 2003.
Ty McNichols, superintendent of Normandy schools, said the disparity is best understood in the life experiences and services that families can afford.
McNichols’ own children attend Ladue schools, and have two educators for parents. McNichols’ $180,000 income gives them advantages that many children he’s trying to educate in Normandy don’t have access to, he said.
When one of his own children began to struggle in school, he did what many other parents do in Ladue: He hired a tutor from Sylvan Learning Center, who can cost between $36 and $49 an hour. The tutoring worked. His child no longer struggles, and the Ladue School District gets credit for the results.
“Parents do what they need to do to ensure their kids are successful,” McNichols said. “What people don’t take into consideration is, it’s not just the school resources. It’s the family.”
If the Normandy district had resources to provide every one of its struggling students with a private tutor, it would, McNichols has said.
But instead, the transfer situation has required him to cut staff and services. The district is expected to run out of money this summer.
In nearly every district in the Missouri side of the St. Louis metro region, the share of lower income students who test at grade level trails that of their more affluent peers. The below chart shows how lower-income students (orange bar) test compared to more affluent students (top of the blue bar).
Source: Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education