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Now, the crisis in Philadelphia's schools. This morning on MORNING EDITION, we heard about the system's huge funding and governance problems in the wake of devastating budget cuts. Now, we focus on another massive problem that's far less talked about, poverty. It's long proved the biggest barrier to educational success. Today, Philadelphia is one of America's poorest cities, with close to 40 percent of children there living in poverty.
But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, the link between poverty and student achievement has barely figured in the debate over school reform.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's a crisp fall day. An occasional wind gust hits the courtyard leading into the Julia de Bourgos Public Elementary School in North Philly. Dream, achieve - leaves tumble over those words painted in big brightly colored letters on the cement entrance way. Dream, achieve.
Across the street is a bar, Frank's, which looks like it served its last beer the 1980s, when this area was in full post-industrial nosedive. But it's hard to tell. Like too many buildings in the Kensington neighborhood, the line between abandoned and merely dilapidated is blurry.
GAIL KANTOR: Alright, so why don't you write the question down. And we're going to go over what we're talking about. We're going to talk about where to find...
WESTERVELT: Inside the school, on the second floor, 55-year-old teacher Gail Kantor holds court.
KANTOR: Put your pencil down. Assume the position and give me a big case of the smile.
WESTERVELT: Kantor is a feisty Jewish woman with a pocket full of line liners. She's leading a sixth grade class of mostly Latino and black kids. De Bourgos is more than 90 percent Latino. Almost every child attending this school lives at or below the federal poverty line.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (unintelligible)
KANTOR: When they read, they sound like a bunch of like old Jewish men in the synagogue: hy yahyyayh, that's what they remind me of.
WESTERVELT: Kantor, this day, is teaching about labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the United Farm Workers Union.
KANTOR: What happens when you can't pay your bills?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: You get evicted.
KANTOR: That's right. You get evicted, you lose your house, there's no electricity. So what happened to Cesar Chavez in his early years is the same thing that happens to people right now. So now, we're going to talk about what circumstances in his early years. If there's any question, any word up here you don't understand, stop the train.
WESTERVELT: It's almost lunch time. Minds are wandering. Some students struggle with Kantor's question - what in Chavez's early life inspired him to take a stand? He had it pretty good as a little kid one student blurts out.
KANTOR: I know. That's exactly what I was thinking. This is when it was good. What is he going to take a stand for - better watermelon, more friends on the ranch? Where does it start to get tough for him but he's still a child? That's where I want you to look.
WESTERVELT: The public school situation in Philly is grim. The district is broke. The governor cut more than a billion from the state's K through 12 budget ,which hit the state-controlled Philly district hardest. At the school year's start, the district laid off thousands of employees, cut programs and services, and closed 23 under-populated city schools. De Burgos just absorbed some 250 kids, an upheaval that's still in progress.
That's put enormous strain on kids, parents and teachers, especially when you throw in persistent poverty. Among the largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of people living in deep poverty.
I asked Kantor if she's had to increase out of pocket buying for her students. She just laughs.
KANTOR: Clothing, books, all the school supplies, backpacks. And you see some kids that are really suffering. Some kids don't ever have a dime. They have one pencil. They have a spiral book and they don't have any other supplies.
WESTERVELT: Other teachers say they've had to bring in cleaning supplies, even toilet paper. But lots of non-material things gnaw at Kantor. She says some parents these days, many of them single moms, seem overwhelmed and disengaged. Kantor says she knows they're stressed out and tries to reach out on the phone, but too often is left discouraged.
KANTOR: Number's already wrong. They were already disconnected. People are sending their children to school without a phone number you can reach them. There are a lot of parents that want to do better but don't know exactly how to do it. Like, I'll have parents that will defer to me. I'm not the parent but I'm older, I'm educated. And so they look to me, like, for help.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Remember, only touch what you're taking.
WESTERVELT: Kindergarteners cue up in a semi-orderly way for a lunch offering of turkey burgers, pizza, milk and steamed veggies. Most just want the pizza.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Plain or pepperoni?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Plain.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Plain?
WESTERVELT: Every child at de Bourgos gets access to free breakfast and a free lunch at school. The principal says almost all take part. Study after study shows the many ways poverty undermines learning. Lower income kids enter kindergarten with poorer language skills than kids from middle and upper income homes. Studies show in some cases kids from poverty are more than two years behind their privileged counterparts. They're more likely to have fewer books in the home, have more health problems, and miss more school days. And too many kids come to school hungry. Then they can't focus and learn.
MARIANA CHILTON: They can't concentrate as well. And children who are food insecure don't perform as well on math and language arts tests. They don't do as well in school.
WESTERVELT: Mariana Chilton is with Drexel University's School of Public Health and a leading authority on hunger and poverty in Philadelphia. She says at the height of the Great Recession, nearly half of all families with young kids in this city reported food hardship or increased hunger. She says the research is crystal clear - poverty and hunger undermine children's cognitive, social and emotional development.
CHILTON: They also have a hard time getting along with their peers and with their teachers. So it's strongly related to how well a child can do in school.
WESTERVELT: Some parents in the swaths of concentrated poverty in north and west Philly don't have enough consistently for food, heat, rent, running water or electricity. That often means their kids can't do homework, think or read in a comfortable place. Neighborhood violence and crime only add to their sense of vulnerability.
CHILTON: And it creates a certain kind of desperation and distrust among neighbors and among school administrators. And it's a sense of being abandoned by our most important institutions. It's a sense of being abandoned by the powers-that-be in the city of Philadelphia.
WESTERVELT: Over time, Philadelphia's enduring poverty has exacerbated de facto segregation. Education historian Diane Ravitch says Philadelphia and other big urban school systems in America too often fail to look at school crises and solutions holistically; fail to link poverty, racial and income inequality with school performance.
DIANE RAVITCH: That is not just the elephant in the room. That is the biggest scandal in our country today. We don't want to talk about poverty. And the people who call themselves reformers say poverty is just an excuse for bad teachers. That's their way of saying, let's not talk about poverty. And the whole state of Pennsylvania should be ashamed of what's happening in Philadelphia today.
WESTERVELT: We don't want to talk about poverty, she says, because it's too big and too ugly. Nationally, the school achievement gap by income has widened substantially in the last 30 years, according to a Stanford professor whose work shows that economic inequality now exceeds racial inequality in its effect on education outcomes.
SHEARINE MCGHEE: I use my big check. It has the milk, cheese, eggs, the beans. You can get the 1.6 ounce can of juice. That's your big check.
WESTERVELT: Thirty-four-year-old Shearine McGhee is struggling to keep it all together. She has three kids, ages one, five and eight. The father of the youngest child took off. The father of the other two kids is in prison. Shearine gets food stamps and, for her one-year-old, food help from the federal assistance program WIC.
MCGHEE: I do rely on it. Sometimes when you run out of food stamps or you run out of food, you still got your WIC check.
WESTERVELT: She now works at a WIC office as a nutritionist's assistant. She makes $8.97 an hour, barely enough, she says, to get by. Shearine says she and other single moms depend on the free food from public schools.
MCGHEE: When those kids come to school, you don't know if they have food in their fridgerator, or if their mom around, she could be on drugs or whatever, or not even near. What are they eating? We don't know once they leave school.
WESTERVELT: McGhee is holding out for her own version of that De Bourgos school sign in big, bright letters: Dream, achieve. She wants good public schools for her kids and, someday, a food truck selling her homemade soul food. I want to be an entrepreneur, she says, I'm tired of this.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News.