“How does poverty impact a child’s ability to learn?” Tisha Nguyen repeats a reporter’s question and then takes a deep breath. “I’m a firm believer in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so let’s start with going hungry. If you’re hungry, learning is not at the forefront of your mind.”
Any number of “need” factors in the home environment can make it more difficult for any child to achieve at acceptable levels academically, let alone to excel. But the incidence of certain factors — hunger and malnutrition, abuse and neglect, exposure to drugs and drug-related activity, unavailability (or even inability) of parents to help with homework and other school assignments — is demonstrably greater in homes where income is near or below poverty level.
“If you are a child who lives in poverty,” says Nguyen, who is the chief academic officer for the Birmingham City Schools, “your immediate environment is not telling you that this is not the norm. It’s extremely easy for a child to believe that it is. School is the one place that can challenge their concept of normal. But to do that, we have to put things in place on campus to combat what those students are going home to deal with at the end of the school day.”
On average, students from low-income households do not perform as well academically as those from middle-class and upper class households. Poor children are more likely to have a learning disability, to be required to repeat a grade, to be suspended or expelled from school, and to drop out of school. The National Assessment of Educational Progress has reported a direct correlation between child poverty rates and lower average scores on achievement tests in reading and math.
Making the problem worse is the fact that the nexus between poverty and education is a self-perpetuating cycle. For any given child, being poor decreases the likelihood of receiving a good education, and the lack of adequate education increases the likelihood of remaining poor. Underscoring this point: In Birmingham, almost half of adult residents who did not finish high school live in poverty.
“For a core percentage of low-income people, it is getting harder even to conceive of getting out of poverty,” says Yolanda Sullivan, chief executive officer of the YWCA of Central Alabama, which provides a range of services for low-income women and children. “We have had generation after generation, cycle after cycle, of just getting by. That’s going to continue until there’s an intervention to open their eyes to a better way.
“The key to that intervention is education.”
While Weld’s ongoing series on poverty encompasses Jefferson County as a whole, the writer has chosen to focus on the city of Birmingham’s system due to its size, its socioeconomic makeup, and its corresponding centrality to efforts to alleviate and reduce poverty communitywide. For the record, there are seven other municipal school systems in the county: Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Trussville, Homewood and Hoover, all of which rank among the top systems in the state in terms of student performance; and Fairfield and Bessemer, which like Birmingham rank among the worst performing systems. The most notable difference between the first group of schools and the second (including Birmingham) is the average rate of poverty in the cities they serve — 5.9 percent for the first group, 26.7 percent for the second.
As for the Jefferson County school system, its 33,000 students come from 27 municipalities and various unincorporated areas, representing a full range of income levels. Of the 27 municipalities, 10 have poverty rates higher than Alabama’s statewide rate of 18.1 percent, with an average poverty rate among them of 29.3 percent. The other 17 municipalities that feed the county system have an average poverty rate of 9.1 percent. Countywide, the poverty rate is 17 percent.
Changing a culture
Therein lies the challenge for Birmingham’s public school system.
The Birmingham City Schools is the sixth-largest school system in the Alabama — behind Mobile County, Jefferson County, Baldwin County, Shelby County and Montgomery County — and the largest serving a single municipality. The Birmingham system enrolls about 23,000 students in a city where the poverty rate is 28.9 percent overall, 37.9 percent among families with children under 18, 41.9 percent among children in general, and a staggering 49.9 percent in families where the head of household is a single female (about seven in 10 of all poor households in Birmingham).
The collective student body in the Birmingham City Schools is about 93 percent black, compared to 73.4 percent in the city as a whole. More importantly in terms of gauging poverty among students, 89 percent of them — well over 20,000 children — participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program. Of the 44 schools in the Birmingham system, 39 receive federal “Title I” funds, earmarked for schools that serve a high percentage of low-income students.
“A huge portion of our student body lives with poverty every day,” declares Randall Woodfin, president of the Birmingham Board of Education. Along with a majority of the board, Woodfin was elected to the school system’s governing body in 2013 with a pledge to reverse the decades-long decline of Birmingham schools. It’s a daunting task, he admits, but one that is essential to addressing the city’s crippling poverty rate and improving its prospects for the future.
“We need to own it,” Woodfin says of the challenge that faces the board, administration, faculty and staff of the city schools. “What can the school system do about poverty? For starters, we can make sure that our children are educated in a safe, secure and nurturing environment. No matter what goes on at home, our schools have to be a place where children have all of the tools and all of the instruction and encouragement and support they need to learn. Beyond that, we have to communicate to students and parents that a high school diploma is the gateway to improving their economic status.”
Taking even those basic steps requires a change in the culture of the Birmingham City Schools, says Tisha Nguyen. Over the years, perceptions of the city schools among students and their parents — and the public at large — have been affected by the failure of the school system to establish firm standards and goals, inculcate high expectations among administrators, faculty and staff, and quantify outcomes in a way that allows data to be utilized in formulating a clear action plan for improving the school system.
“We’re digging out of a really deep hole,” says Nguyen, who arrived in Birmingham in December of 2013 and has spent much of her first eight months on the job assessing the current situation and laying a foundation for systemic change over the long term. “A big part of the problem is the extremely low level of rigor in the instruction our students have been receiving. It hasn’t been done on purpose, it’s just that there has been no systemic commitment to best practices.”
To address that, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon has instituted a weekly conference call that includes all 44 principals, as well as the superintendent, Nguyen and the system’s chief financial officer and human resources officer. In addition, Witherspoon has a face-to-face meeting with all principals on a monthly basis.
“Everybody is on this call,” Nguyen says. “It’s all about tracking what has been accomplished during the past week, and what is expected by this time next week. And it is all data-driven. How do the strategies and tactics we are using relate to the trends and patterns we see in the data in front of us? The expectation is that the principals go back to their campuses and do the same thing with their staffs.”
In the immediate term, the key priorities are clear, says Nguyen. These include having students read and write in the classroom every day; achieve mastery of all basic mathematic functions, including fractions; learn problem-solving skills, connected to real-world applications; and graduate from high school college- and/or career-ready. Nguyen is encouraged by what she has seen thus far, especially in the response among students.
“By and large, our kids are ready to learn,” Nguyen maintains. “It is the system that has been holding them back. We just need the right instruction and the right tools.”
From a school board perspective, Woodfin notes there is “a lot to build on, but also a lot of needs — many of which are tied to funding issues.” The system’s “career academies” — special instructional programs centered on occupational themes — work well, he says, but need to be supplemented by a “robust career tech program,” in close cooperation with the two-year college system. Woodfin also wants the board to look at making summer school mandatory for students who are not performing at their grade level, to help ensure that they are up to speed for beginning the next school year.
Woodfin points to four of the city’s schools — Avondale and Glen Iris elementary schools, and Huffman and Wilkerson middle schools — as evidence of what happens when all of the right ingredients are in place. The “common denominator,” he says, is “a commitment to success” from all involved, including students and their parents or caregivers.
“We have pockets of excellence,” Nguyen agrees. “What we need, and what we are doing, is to build a floor, a baseline from which we can help our students succeed. We should be able to look at the best schools in our system and agree that we can do the same things well systemwide.”
Two sides of the coin
Even as internal efforts to improve the Birmingham City Schools show signs of incremental progress, those efforts take place against the backdrop of the city’s changing social dynamics. On the one hand, many black parents — mirroring the “white flight” that contributed to the decline of the school system — are moving out of the city as soon as their economic circumstances allow, primarily to get their children into one of the numerous suburban systems that perform at much higher levels than Birmingham schools.
“If you live in Birmingham, it all depends on which school you go to,” says Ivory Prince. The mother of a seven-year-old daughter, Prince — whose story was a focal point of the “Housing” installment in Weld’s poverty series — relates that her experience with the Birmingham school system was mixed. Her daughter, Janiya, attended kindergarten at Glen Iris Elementary through a program that allows children to transfer to a school other than the one for which they are zoned, and progressed well in reading and math.
Prince lived in public housing at the time, and when she moved to a different housing project the following year, Janiya was not invited to return to Glen Iris. Instead, she attended Southampton Elementary, in Pratt City. While quick to note that she speaks only for herself and her own experience, Prince — herself a K-4 teacher who soon will begin work on a master’s degree in early childhood education — is unequivocal in her assessment of the school.
“It was awful,” she says. “Not long after the school year started, they switched teachers without any notification. I noticed that Janiya was not bringing home any homework, and when I’d ask her what she did in school that day, she’d usually say, ‘We colored.’ She’d get bad grades on tests, but high marks on her report card, which made me wonder if there was any teaching going on at all.”
Prince contrasts that with Janiya’s performance at suburban Chalkville Elementary, where she started last January after her mother became a homeowner through Habitat for Humanity. From struggling with reading during her time at Southampton, by the end of last school year, Janiya was recognized by her teacher as one of the best readers in her class.
“Night and day,” Prince describes the difference. “And not only that, but the teachers at Chalkville communicate with parents every day. Everybody’s experience is different, and everybody has their own opinion, but just me as a parent, I know that I made the right decision. I went to Birmingham city schools, had some very good teachers and have done all right. But I wanted better for Janiya.”
On the flip side of that coin is Laura Kate Whitney. A small business owner who lives in the Crestwood North neighborhood with her husband and two small sons, Whitney has been an active parent at Avondale Elementary since enrolling her oldest child there two years ago. She is one of a small but growing number of white parents, mostly middle-class, who reside in Birmingham and are bucking the long-term trend of whites who choose to live in the city but send their kids to private schools.
“My husband and I moved to Birmingham, fell in love with the city, and were not willing to accept that the school in our community was not an option for our children,” Whitney says. “We had neighbors who were quite vocal about their view of Birmingham City Schools as a place for ‘the others.’ We were told that the city schools were hopeless. As a parent and a taxpayer, I had a really hard time with that. I think that part of the problem with the system is that hopelessness being reflected on the students. It hits me on an emotional level.”
Whitney is encouraged by the changes that have taken place on the Board of Education, as well as by new, energetic leadership at Avondale that includes 16 new teachers for the school year that started last week. She also draws a contrast between two years ago, when she and the rest of the small group of white parents who enrolled their kids at Avondale “felt like outsiders,” and the situation today, as her son begins his third year in the Birmingham school system.
“A community has been created,” Whitney says. “Parent engagement has increased pretty dramatically. We’ve also had success in bringing in resources through strategic partnerships with corporations and nonprofits like the Jones Valley Teaching Farm, which is part of the curriculum at Avondale and five other schools and is working to go citywide with their program. I think what you have is a growing number of people who are not offended by the opportunity for change.”
While she sees the bad as well as the good — the lack of funds for extracurricular activities that enhance and enrich the lives of students; the need to feed the development of the school system by providing more and better residential opportunities in the city for middle-class parents of all races — Whitney proclaims herself “thrilled” that perceptions are shifting and more parents are starting to recognize Avondale Elementary as an option.
“Overall, we feel great about it,” Whitney says. “But I don’t feel like we’re part of some big plan to address poverty. My focus is on what’s in front of me — my son’s education, this school. I know there’s a long way to go, but we’ve started to see firsthand that our investment of time and resources is having a positive impact.”
A step at a time
For parents like Prince and Whitney, the primary measure of a school’s success is necessarily tied to the performance and experiences of their own children. For those who run the Birmingham City Schools, the measure is much broader and the challenge tremendous.
“It’s a step at a time,” Tisha Nguyen observes. “We are creating a culture where achievement is becoming normal, not exceptional. If you can get a child to say, ‘I have seen another reality, and I like the way that looks,’ now you can put in their brains that education is the way out, the vehicle to a better life, the means of rising above.”
“You have to be committed to every child,” says Randall Woodfin. “You have to find ways to tap into their passion, their interest. You have to help them find out what they want to be, and prepare them to get there. You have to be committed to constant evaluation and improvement, the idea that a year from now, we will be better than we are today.
“It’s a long-term commitment,” Woodfin concludes. “And the level of poverty we’re dealing with cannot be an excuse. Poverty is not an excuse for teachers not teaching and children not learning. Is it a hurdle? Yes. But we are in the process of getting over that hurdle.”