Poverty Holds Back 'No Child Law'

As Washington policymakers talk of leaving no child behind, the reality in places like East St. Louis, Ill., is that schools can't do it alone. When the school day is over and during the long summer vacation, children in these communities face poverty, crime, broken families and despair.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The No Child Left Behind law has committed the nation to making sure that every child gets a decent education. In many places reading and math scores are improving, especially among poor and minority students. But in impoverished communities, such as East St. Louis in Illinois, it's clear that schools cannot do it alone. Crushing poverty, broken homes and rampant crime threaten to eclipse even the most successful efforts to improve schools. NPR's Claudio Sanchez visited East St. Louis and has this report.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development once called East St. Louis the `most distressed city in America.' For most of her life, Kamisha Wilbin(ph) has called it home. She says East St. Louis wasn't always bad.

Ms. KAMISHA WILBIN (East St. Louis Resident): It was more safe. Economy was better. People were more friendlier. School systems was better.

SANCHEZ: Wilbin says East St. Louis is not a good place to raise children anymore, not since drug dealers took over. But this struggling community on the banks of the Mississippi was dying way before the drug epidemic.

Ms. WILBIN: I mean, look around. What do you see? And this is the city's downtown.

SANCHEZ: Empty, burned-out houses have been swallowed by weeds, sidewalks lead nowhere, and downtown is but a memory. Good jobs today are nowhere to be found. Wilbin works part-time at a family center run by the Sisters of Charity in the John DeShields housing project. Work ends at about 1 in the afternoon. She has errands to run today, so we talk on the way home, with her nine-year-old daughter Makisha(ph) not far behind.

Ms. WILBIN: Well, I'm a single parent of three kids. My oldest son is 17; he lives with his father. And my two daughters that's 14 and 9--they live with me.

MAKISHA: Home, Mommy.

Ms. WILBIN: We're almost there now.

SANCHEZ: Wilbin, an attractive woman in her early 30s, is working towards her bachelor's degree in computer programming. She refuses to be another casualty. According to the last census, four in 10 residents of East St. Louis live below the poverty line; two out of five children are born to a teen-ager, and almost half of the city's children drop out of school before the age of 15.

Ms. WILBIN: You'd be surprised how some people around you are satisfied with their living environment. They don't want to do better, and this is all they know. But this is my home. This is home for me.

(Soundbite of door being unlocked)

SANCHEZ: We've arrived soaked in sweat. Wilbin opens the door to her two-bedroom apartment in the Samuel Gompers Apartments, a barrackslike complex built in the 1940s. A small fan cools Wilbin's tiny kitchen. Her home is tidy and clean. Wilbin earns $650 every two weeks from her part-time work. There's little or no cash left over for anything except rent, utilities and food. Somehow, though, Wilbin has come up with just enough money to pay for her youngest daughter's tuition at a parochial school.

Ms. WILBIN: Right now I'm fighting for her not to struggle. I brought her in this situation, and it's my responsibility to get her out. And the only way I know is through education 'cause I'm tired of living like this.

SANCHEZ: Wilbin pulled her daughter out of the East St. Louis public schools this year because she doesn't think anybody, not even the federal government, can fix the system.

Ms. WILBIN: I want better for my kids, you know, 'cause you have graduates that can't read a Dr. Seuss book, and they've came out of this district.

SANCHEZ: For years East St. Louis schools were ranked third-to-last in Illinois. The state took over and appointed Stan Mims to run the system. Despite all the complaints about No Child Left Behind, Mims says he's committed to the law because its message is clear: Being poor does not mean you can't learn. Mims says he doesn't buy the argument that bad neighborhoods or dysfunctional families somehow blot out the impact that good schools can have on children.

Mr. STAN MIMS (Superintendent, East St. Louis School System): Those are excuses. I'm a product of poverty. I grew up in public housing. My parents never graduated from high school. Look at me now; I'm superintendent of schools in East St. Louis. So I would say that, yeah, we may have some teachers who may feel saddled with the No Child Left Behind law as being something that's cumbersome and not doable. But you do have teachers and educators who feel that, `Hey, I can dig deep and go deep in reaching those youngsters who are furthest from the standards.' Education is the key.

Group of Children #1: (In unison) D-I-S-H, D-I-S-H, D-I-S-H. We got D for double Dutch, I for ...(unintelligible), S for ...(unintelligible), H for...

SANCHEZ: Still, kids in the Samuel Gompers Apartments say it's not easy growing up here.

Group of Children #2: (In unison) It's a bad neighborhood.

SANCHEZ: Why?

Unidentified Girl #1: Because there's violence.

Unidentified Girl #2: There's too much fighting.

Unidentified Girl #1: ...shooting, killing, murdering and all.

SANCHEZ: You mean here in this housing complex as well?

Unidentified Girl #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Girl #4: Sometimes.

Unidentified Girl #5: Sometimes...

Unidentified Girl #6: Not all the time.

Unidentified Girl #5: ...but around these neighborhoods...

Unidentified Boy: These are ...(unintelligible), period.

SANCHEZ: For most children here, there are no summer camps, no recreation, no respite from the fear that blankets neighborhoods like this one. Alan Ortbals, who owns and writes for The Illinois Business Journal, is a vocal critic of elected officials in East St. Louis, past and present, black and white. He says they've stood in the way of economic development and failed to understand the impact that good-paying jobs can have on parents' ability to give their children a proper education.

Mr. ALAN ORTBALS (Owner, The Illinois Business Journal): A family being able to feed their and clothe their kids and medical care and transportation and so forth, a decent place to live--if you don't have a job, the education of a child, I've got to believe, is going to be hurt.

Unidentified Woman #1: Come on, guys. Do something.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's 3:15.

SANCHEZ: It's Friday. There's been no break from the record heat, and kids in the John DeShields housing project are getting ready for their weekly picnic.

Sister JULIA WISCAMP(ph): Come on, you guys. Let's hustle this up. It's too hot to be sitting on that bus. It's like an oven in there.

SANCHEZ: That's Sister Julia Wiscamp, a tiny, restless woman in her 70s, a member of the Sisters of Charity, which runs several family centers in East St. Louis. This summer there was only room for 300 children.

Sister WISCAMP: We give them a balanced meal. They get two vegetables and fruits, two ounces of good meat, bread, milk. You know, they get a decent meal. What? The poor kids are just supposed to get junk that's full of fat and salt?

SANCHEZ: Making sure children don't go hungry is not so much a social or political cause as it is a Christian's duty, says Sister Julia. But there's so much more missing in these kids' lives, she says. Weekly picnics, for example, are the only opportunity most of these kids get to venture beyond the projects. Sister Julia pulls me into her rickety pickup truck and says she wants me to see something else before I leave. After driving a few blocks, she asks, `Do you notice anything?'

Sister WISCAMP: There's almost no white people here. I mean, maybe 1 or 1 1/2 percent. Whites have moved up the hill, as they say, up the hill to Belleville and other communities. And there's still a great deal of tension.

SANCHEZ: Most of the undeveloped or abandoned land is owned by people who don't live in East St. Louis but are holding out until their land is worth something. In the meantime, the landscape looks like a war zone.

(Soundbite of train and crossing bells)

SANCHEZ: Where does that train go?

Sister WISCAMP: It's going to go out to the junior college. It's about maybe 45 minutes out there by train.

SANCHEZ: Sure, says Sister Julia, there's been some progress since the city's worst crisis in the early 1990s. The new light-rail system that cuts through town means East St. Louis isn't nearly as isolated as it once was, and there's more affordable housing for the working poor. But to break the cycle of poverty, says Sister Julia, a lot more has to happen here. Schools can't do it all alone. She'd like to believe that No Child Left Behind is more than just a slogan.

Sister WISCAMP: It's a good concept that no child, no child in poverty or any handicaps, would be left behind. That's a wonderful concept and idea. But translating that into reality is so complicated. I mean, it's so much more complicated than that.

SANCHEZ: Twenty years ago when she arrived, Sister Julia says she would tell parents their children were the future of East St. Louis. Her advice to them today is, `Have faith, but if you want to save yourself and your children, leave East St. Louis and don't look back.' Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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