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Poverty in DL schools: Roosevelt faces the highest number of students living in poverty; rising each year

Roosevelt Elementary School houses the highest number of district students living in poverty. Paula Quam / Tribune1 / 2
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Back in 2007, Becker County had one of the highest child-poverty rates in Minnesota, ranking in eighth place with 16 percent of kids living in poor households. Since then, that number has only gone up, increasing to 18.5 percent in 2017, a statistic that is all too real at Roosevelt Elementary. It is the school that houses the highest number of low-income and poverty-stricken students in the district.

"The poverty here at Roosevelt is deeper," said Superintendent Doug Froke.

The number of students receiving free-and-reduced lunch at Roosevelt indicates a rising issue: since 2007, the number of students receiving free-and-reduced lunch at the elementary school has increased from 185 to 290 in 2016.

And, while not all students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch are living below the government-decided poverty line ($49,200 annual income for a family of four), it's a pretty good indicator of the need or, at least, it's how the district is able to measure their low-income/poverty need.

The district does get state funding according to the number of students who receive free-and-reduced lunch, and the push to get families to sign up for the benefit may has caused part of the increased number of kids in the program. But the increase in poverty can also be detected in other ways. For example, the low level of kindergarten readiness the district reported last month (only 34 percent) may be due, in part, to the rising level of poverty in Becker County.

"The percentage of kindergarteners coming in needing interventions (66 percent)...that could be linked to poverty, maybe not completely," said Roosevelt Principal Trisha Mariotti. "There's just so many factors...it's really hard to pinpoint one thing, but there's a correlation there for sure."

Kindergarteners are assessed in a number of different ways during their first few days in the classroom, emergent reading being one of them and, as the district reported, print concepts is an area where they continue to struggle.

According to Eric Jensen's book, "Teaching with Poverty in Mind," the socioeconomic conditions children grow up in weigh heavily on their ability catch onto the concepts of reading and writing: "Children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller vocabulary than middle class children, which raises the risk for academic failure."

Jensen goes on to explain that children in low-income families, on average, encounter a mere 13 million words by the age of four, compared the the 26 million that middle class children hear and the 46 million words children in upper-income households hear.

"Our kindergarten teachers have a range of abilities that walk into their classrooms on that first day," said Froke. "And they have to begin melding that range together and working to bring levels of literacy to those children who are a third behind."

For those kids who start behind the pack, catching up can be hard in itself, particularly when still dealing with the numerous effects of living in poverty or a low-income household.

"Children who experience poverty are less likely to be healthy, both physically and mentally, less likely to gain the education they need to become productive in the workforce, more likely to become teen parents and more likely to become arrested and incarcerated," according to a report by the Children's Defense Fund Minnesota.

Often times, before learning can even begin, hunger needs to be addressed.

"Nutrition is a huge deal," said Froke. "If they're hungry, they're a distracted learner. You have to take that off the table and feed them so that they can focus when they get in the classroom."

For that reason, the district does a healthy snack twice a week and implemented free breakfast for everyone last year, in addition to the free-and-reduced lunch program.

But even after they are fed, research shows that teachers can't just jump right into teaching. Particularly for kids living in poverty, relationships are key in fostering an environment where the student feels safe enough to grasp new concepts.

"Collectively, we understand we're not going to be able to teach these kids, if we don't have that relationship piece in place first, so our teachers take a good six weeks...at the beginning of the school year to really set up the procedures in the classroom, and get to know their students really well on a personal level," said Mariotti.

She says, more than just recognizing a student as a kiddo in the classroom, teachers will work to figure out a student's interests and base learning activities off of their interest.

"If they like comic books, then we'll let them read comic books. If they're interested in space, then we find articles," she said. "You know, you pair interests with the child, but I think it also in turn builds those relationships with the kids."

Children living in poverty more often than not need many interventions to make up for the impacts of poverty and, in the last five or six years, the Detroit Lakes District has really begun tracking the problem and working on ways to counteract it academically as well.

For one, the state funding they get from free-and-reduced lunch funding, Basic Skills Revenue, brought in $1.8 million this year, all dollars that go towards targeting and helping those kids living in low-income households.

"We will use that (revenue) to lower class size, just as an example," said Froke. "You have targeted intervention groups. We target kids we see right away...with special services."

Mariotti agreed, adding that they have reading specialists, paid for with Achievement Integration Funds, to help kids catch up. They also have Title 1 teachers and paraprofessionals and targeted services for students who need that extra help in both reading and math.

Although, academic and other interventions can only help reduce the effects of poverty, not the issue itself, which only continues to rise, particularly among kids.

Twenty-one percent of United States children—14.8 million—are living in poverty and another 43 percent, or 30.6 million, are living in low-income families, according to 2017 statistics from the National Center for Children in Poverty. Numbers that continue to go up each year and, as they rise, so does the question: how can it be stopped?

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