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Low Test Scores & Low Income Linked; Staff Seek to Help

‘Basics of Life for Some Kids Are Not Basic”

At Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, the Kent County district with the lowest family income, the correlation between M-STEP scores and poverty is stark. More than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch in the one-square mile district and 27 percent of third-graders are proficient in English language arts. The statewide average is 44.1 percent.

Poverty is a major factor considered in instruction practices, wrap-around services and ongoing education reform efforts. Superintendent Kevin Polston pointed out where Godfrey-Lee third graders fall on a graph (see above) that illustrates the link between poverty and third-grade reading proficiency. “It shows the impact that poverty has on achievement.”

Related Story: ‘Reading with a Purpose’ Helps Students Learn

Reading Reflects Income
Spring 2017 M-STEP scores in English language arts (called “reading” in the lower grades) largely correlate to a school district’s family income level. Other factors can also affect scores, such as students with disabilities and students just learning English. (For example, many students from multiple districts are served by Grand Rapids Public Schools’ special education programs, and their scores are attributed to GRPS.)Here is a breakdown of Kent ISD’s 20 local districts, showing their third-grade reading scores and third-graders’ free and reduced lunch rates (FRL). The reading score is the percentage of students who tested at “proficient” on the test. The percentage of students qualifying for a free or reduced-price lunch is commonly used as a measure of income level. The higher the percentage of FRL students, the more poverty among the district’s families.
School District % of 3rd-graders proficient % of students with free/reduced lunch
Byron Center Public Schools77.625.5
Caledonia Community Schools68.119.6
Cedar Springs Public Schools35.441.4
Comstock Park Public Schools37.860.8
East Grand Rapids Public Schools82.93.2
Forest Hills Public Schools65.610.4
Godfrey-Lee Public Schools26.991.5
Godwin Heights Public Schools35.491.1
Grand Rapids Public Schools23.285.2
Grandville Public Schools55.932.6
Kelloggsville Public Schools31.983.5
Kenowa Hills Public Schools52.354.4
Kent City Community Schools57.866.1
Kentwood Public Schools52.668.7
Lowell Area Schools58.536.9
Northview Public Schools48.246.7
Rockford Public Schools58.213.9
Sparta Area Schools62.747.3
Thornapple Kellogg School District56.431.2
Wyoming Public Schools28.782.7
Source: Kent ISD

“Ideally, we want to be one of these outliers,” he said, referring to schools on the graph that are high achievers despite high poverty rates. Those, sadly, are few and far between.

There has to be a big-picture approach when dealing with poverty in schools in order to disrupt the impact on student achievement, he said.

Godfrey-Lee is focused on first meeting basic needs, food, water, warmth and rest, so learning can take place. “The basics of life for some kids are not basic,” said Assistant Superintendent Carol Lautenbach.

To meet those needs – so students are in the classrooms ready to learn – the district has in place Kent School Services Network, which provides dental, health and vision services; Kids Food Basket, which provides sack suppers for children to bring home after school, and universal free breakfast and lunch programs.

Students have the opportunity to stay after school for an extended learning program and the after-school enrichment program, TEAM 21. They’ve also started mindfulness activities and staff has gone through trauma-sensitive training.

Those type of things help build foundations for student learning, Lautenbach said, “Those are really tangible ways we are trying to bridge the gap for kids,” she said.

Recognizing Their Strengths

But there’s another piece in educating students in poverty that often gets overlooked: the strengths they already have. “I don’t like the term disadvantaged,” Polston said.

“Any of our folks intimately involved with this are very good at looking at the hidden strengths that we sometimes ask people to check at the door,” Lautenbach added.

Many people who live in poverty, such as immigrant and refugee students are risk-takers because they have to be. Those experiences can be part of creating the foundation for success that goes way beyond knowing content.

The district is using a strength-based Learner Profile based on the 6Cs, skills considered vital for success in future careers. They are collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence along with content-knowledge. It’s a strength-based system, Lautenbach explained.

But despite their strengths, children who live in poverty often have limited experiences compared to more affluent families. Seeing Lake Michigan, for example, is different than looking at a picture of it. The district works to provide opportunities for students to experience and explore.

“Their worlds are very small and focused on family, or survival or a small geographic area. (We ask) ‘How can we create more experiences for them so they have more to draw on?’ Lautenbach said. Barriers to reaching reading proficiency can include minimal exposure to academic vocabulary, a lack of books in the home or access to preschool programs.

Kelloggsville Staff Focusing on Poverty & Learning

Kelloggsville Public Schools, where 79 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, is also digging deep into meeting the learning needs of students by assisting with basic needs and building relationships. Staff members are continuing a district-wide book study on “Teaching with Poverty in Mind,” by Erik Jensen, a former reading teacher who synthesizes brain research and develops practical applications for educators.

Assistant Superintendent Tammy Savage said students raised in poverty often live day to day and aren’t empowered with information about what they can become in the future. She’s not disparaging their parents, she explained, as many are working so hard to make ends meet, they can’t easily focus beyond the present.

“Parents in poverty are in survival mode rather than in the mode of teaching their children what they can be. It’s a cycle and it’s hard to break,” Savage said.

Still, Kelloggsville is making strides, she said, that are reflected in data. On M-STEP, 31.9 percent of third graders were proficient in ELA, but that’s just one piece. “We can pull out data from the classroom that shows huge gains from the beginning to end of the school year.”

Statewide Reading Scores Tend to Follow Poverty or Wealth

This chart provides a visual depiction –statewide — of the impact of poverty combined with test scores in M-STEP 3rd grade reading. Each dot represents a school building. On the left is the percent of students who scored “proficient,” with zero at the bottom and 100 percent at the top. The data below is the percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, a common poverty indicator, with zero per cent of students at the left and 100 percent of students on the right.

Although many high-poverty schools, according to this chart, struggle with reading proficiency, there are also many scoring quite high. These schools, despite issues of poverty, are finding ways to help students read well. Figuring out how they are accomplishing this and duplicating their success is the mission of Reading Now Network. All 20 of the districts within Kent ISD are participants in this network of hundreds of schools.

Poverty & reading scores statewide

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.


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