FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
The Supreme Court ordered school desegregation more than 50 years ago. Technically, America's schools are open to children of all races. But in reality, many are segregated, and we're not just talking about race. A new study has found that the South is the only region in the country where most of the public school students are low income.
Here to talk about the new findings is Lynn Huntley. She's president of the Southern Education Foundation, the group that conducted the study. And we also have Joseph Edelin, a teacher at Kipp Ways Academy in Atlanta. Welcome to you both.
Mr. JOSEPH EDELIN (Teacher, Kipp Ways Academy): Thank you.
Ms. LYNN HUNTLEY (President, Southern Education Foundation): Yes, thank you.
CHIDEYA: So Lynn, how do school administrators define a child as coming from a low income background?
Ms. HUNTLEY: Roughly, it is a hundred and eighty-five percent of the poverty level that has been set. Sometimes, people use the 200 percent figure, but, generally, it's a hundred and eighty-five percent of poverty.
CHIDEYA: And so that varies from region to region, correct?
Ms. HUNTLEY: Well, it's according to the national standard.
CHIDEYA: So, when you talk about children being concentrated economically in schools, what exactly are we talking about? How, what percentage and what states?
Ms. HUNTLEY: Well, let me clarify just a little further. The poverty rate - a hundred and eighty-five percent or less of poverty - adds up to a monthly income of less than about $1500 for a family of three in 1989. What our study showed is that there has been a steady increase in many places across the nation, but especially in the South, in the concentration of low income students in public education institutions. In 2003, the South had approximately 48 percent low income students in the public schools. In 2006, our study shows that we have 53.89 or almost 54 percent of all the students in the public schools are poor.
Our report has a breakdown by states of those where the heavily concentrated poor students are located. But particularly in the South: Alabama has 54 percent; Arkansas, 53; Florida, 62; Georgia, 52; Kentucky, 50; Louisiana, 84 percent; Maryland, 31; Mississippi, 75 percent; North Carolina, 49 percent; South Carolina, 52 percent. In the…
CHIDEYA: Lynn, let me jump in for a second. Do you see any reason why this concentration has gone up or is it that the concentration of poor students has gone up or that other students have left the system?
Ms. HUNTLEY: We believe that it is that the concentration of low income students has gone up. And our report indicates that there are three primary factors for this: The first is that the South itself has concentrated poverty. About 40 percent of all poor people in the United States live in the South, and there has not been, in recent years, any significant anti-poverty program either at the state or local level in many Southern states. Secondly, there are high rates of underemployment in many Southern states and high rates of unemployment, so there's been a decline in the real value of wages and family income over the last few years; and that has fueled an increase in the number of low income students. And finally, we have differential birth rates with low income people tending, as a group, to have more children than more affluent people. We also have in the South, as well as other parts of the nation, a significant increase in Latino children, many of whom are from low income backgrounds and, as well, low income people, particularly Latinos and African-Americans, tend to have a differentially high birth rate compared to other student groups.
CHIDEYA: Well, Lynn, we have a link to your study on our Web site which is nprnewsandnotes.org. I want to turn to Joseph now. You are a teacher at Kipp Ways Academy in Atlanta. What kind of demographic do you have in terms of income?
Mr. EDELIN: Well, in income, we have about 83 percent free or reduced lunch which basically means that we're talking about a school with a majority of low income students. We're also dealing with the school of 99 percent African-Americans.
CHIDEYA: So when you look at your student body, do you consider them segregated - segregated, not just racially, but economically?
Mr. EDELIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, when you're looking at the neighborhood that we're in, as well as the children we're dealing with, the neighborhood itself is a low income community with several different housing projects nearby as well as other features of low income communities. We're talking about communities where there are few resources in terms of grocery store options. We're talking about the facilities in terms of the streets are in poor conditions. And then so the students that we get are from, of course, this community, and so they are experiencing all these things that we are surrounded by.
CHIDEYA: Does this make a difference - and I don't just mean in terms of, obviously, access to resources makes a difference in life - but does it make a difference to go to a school where everyone is low income? Is that a form of - does that undermine the quality of education or not?
Mr. EDELIN: I think that in the traditional system we're dealing with, it does because, you know - and it kind of goes to what Ms. Huntley was talking about in terms of, you know, having a higher birth rate, well, I think some of the reasons for a higher birth rate is, of course, of lack of education. On many times, you have poor education in poor communities, and you live in a poor community because you can't afford to live in a better community because you have a poor job. And so these - and you have a poor job because you didn't get the best education. So these things are cyclical, you see? And so, you know, when - these things matter because if you can't get a good education then - and you don't know about the good things in terms of sexual education, you don't know about how you can protect yourself, you don't know about the risks out there, then, of course, you're going to go on and you can - you're going to possibly have more children because you don't know necessarily not to or that you don't know that there are risks out there for you because education has not being provided for you. Same thing with other aspects of education, so it definitely it has an impact.
CHIDEYA: Lynn, I'm going to turn the same question to you. There are numbers and then there are aspirations, hopes, dreams, does this affect the ability of kids to get a good education or for them to have aspirations that they realize or both - or neither?
Ms. HUNTLEY: I think that there is an abundant literature showing what the negative consequences of concentrated poverty, not just in education, but also in housing and other venues has on life chances of individuals. But concentrated poverty in schools, in terms of student bodies, is particularly troublesome because of several factors. First, we tend to place students in schools that are financed by local or state taxes, and there are inequalities built into that. So low income students tend, as a group, to be in schools with the least well qualified teachers.
Mr. EDELIN: That's right.
Ms. HUNTLEY: They tend to have the fewest counseling services. They tend to have the least access to technology and other specialized efforts that would allow them to become prepared to be employed in the information economy. They tend to drop out of school many instances at rates of over 45 percent of students in school dropped out, so they tend to drop out in high numbers. And they tend to have, in short, the least counseling assistance and the least likelihood of getting need-based scholarship aid to go to college.
So, from the very beginning, when very few and inadequate numbers of low income students have no access to pre-kindergarten programs through college, the nation is being inattentive to the needs of low-income students. And as a consequence, we are seeing, at the national level, growth in wealth and income inequality. It's a very troublesome set of developments that threatens democracy, our national security, and the quality of life.
Mr. EDELIN: Right.
CHIDEYA: Now, Joseph, you're at a charter school.
Mr. EDELIN: That's right.
CHIDEYA: How do you deal with these issues, not just at charter schools which have a bit more autonomy than other public school, but on the day-to-day? Do you ever talk to friends who are teachers at non-charter public schools? How do you think that this could be turned around?
Mr. EDELIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I used to work at a regular public middle school in Houston, Texas. And so I know that there are different struggles. And Kipp Ways Academy and the Kipp motto, in general, is a public school but it's also a public charter school. So we have a lot, like she said, a lot more autonomy. We do things differently.
For instance, we go from - to school from 7:15 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening. And this is that whole idea of more time on tasks. We're really focusing on these kids' education. We're really giving them a lot more time to do it, not in terms of necessarily class hours, but we're spending more time on the actual subjects. We go to school on Saturdays. We go to school in the summertime - three weeks after the summer. And yet these kids - we're still talking about the same kids who are going to these neighborhood schools and who are having some struggles, who are coming in from low-income issues and poverty issues.
But at the same time, we're seeing success because if you're looking at Kipp Ways Academy just by itself, we have the number four math scores in the state. We ranked number 11 out of all middle schools in the state of Georgia. So I think poverty has a huge - plays a huge issue and a huge role in this whole idea of education.
Well, we have to start looking at education from a different venue - different - I'm sorry, point of view. And that - and we have to approach it differently because we're seeing results even with dealing with these kids in poverty. It doesn't mean that they can't learn. Kids in poverty could definitely learn. You just have to be able to teach them.
CHIDEYA: Let me - Lynn, just briefly, what's it going to take to turn this around on a regional and national level?
Ms. HUNTLEY: On a regional and national level, I think we have to start off by redefining what our expectations are for quality education for all children. No Child Left Behind has some positive attributes, but it was an unfunded mandate in many key particulars. And I don't think anyone who works in low-income serving schools believes that we have highly-qualified teachers in many of these classrooms or other measures necessary to provide the quality education.
So the first thing is we need to have a serious national conversation about the role of the federal government, not only in setting standards, but in helping to provide financial resources so as to equalize moneys between and among states and, indeed, to assist in the equalization of resources within states. If we did that, at least we would have a baseline so that every child would not have an education dependent upon his or her social class.
CHIDEYA: Well, Lynn…
Ms. HUNTLEY: Secondly, we need to focus on dropout prevention. Yes?
CHIDEYA: We're going to have to wrap it up there. Lynn and Joseph, thank you.
Mr. EDELIN: Oh, no. Thank you.
Ms. HUNTLEY: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Lynn Huntley is president of the Southern Education Foundation. And Joseph Edelin is a teacher at the Kipp Ways Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.
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