Wendy Lecker, an experienced civil rights attorney in New York and Connecticut, writes here about the enormous stresses under which low-income children live and how they impair children’s ability to learn.
The notion of equal educational opportunity was explained clearly by Kansas Judge Terry Bullock in a 2003 school funding decision: “If a child lives a great way from school, the transportation cost for that child will be greater than for another child nearer to school — just to provide him or her the same educational opportunity. Similarly, if a child cannot speak English, it may cost more to teach that child English as a second language before the child can learn math and other subjects.”
In other words, providing equal opportunity means meeting children where they are — helping them overcome their individual obstacles to learning. Judge Bullock recognized that although those obstacles often exist outside the school walls, overcoming them is part of the state’s constitutional obligation to provide a free public education.
A new UCLA report centers on those out-of-school factors that interfere with learning. The report, titled “It’s About Time,” found that community stressors such as economic distress, hunger, lack of medical care, family problems, unstable housing and violence, result in lost learning time three times as often in high poverty schools as in low poverty schools.
While the report focuses on California, I have heard identical stories from teachers, principals and district officials in Connecticut and New York. Children in impoverished districts often arrive at school hungry, without coats, socks or with broken glasses. High school students miss the first few periods of each school day because they must ensure their younger siblings get to school safely. Children bring to school the instability they experience in their lives.
These are not isolated stories. These are the barriers many poor children encounter every day when they try to learn, and teachers encounter when they try to teach. Before a child can focus on learning, she needs to be fed and clothed and have a way to deal with any trauma she may have experienced the night before. This is why social workers, behavioral specialists, psychologists, counselors and other therapists are essential educational resources. “Support staff” is a misnomer.
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