Poverty in our schools

I have a hard time hearing about any child going without what we as Americans consider the necessities of life. But I’ll be honest, the idea of abject poverty is something I relate to third world countries or areas of severe economic depression. The fact that children are living under those conditions right here in Chenango County is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. And I’m afraid to say it, but, until just a couple of days ago, I was blissfully unaware of just how much poverty touches our community.

At Tuesday night’s school board meeting in Norwich, Stanford Gibson Elementary School Principal Dara Lewis spoke about the challenges her school faces in both the current year and looking forward. We expect to hear that schools are focusing on continuing to raise test scores, academic achievement, literacy and math proficiency rates, so I wasn’t surprised when Dara listed this as one of Gibson’s challenges.

Her second, however, threw me for a loop and brought tears to my eyes.

Explaining first that this wasn’t a building or a district challenge, but one for the entire community, she said, “Right now poverty is affecting the health, behavior and social and emotional growth of our students.”

Her description of her students coming to school with no lunch money, dental health issues so extreme that they are in physical pain, no proper clothing or shoes, was difficult for me to hear. I will remind you that Gibson is home to the districts pre-Kindergarteners through second graders.

Given these conditions, is it no wonder that these same children are also the ones who are sometimes struggling to learn? But Dara warned against making assumptions or accusations about the homelife of these students.

“Judgment doesn’t help,” she said. “We need compassion.”

These are the issues she and her staff face, as they go about their daily tasks of teaching the youth of the Norwich district how to read, how to write and how to add. They try to tackle all of these challenges, and give each child as many opportunities as they can.

“Each student deserves to feel successful no matter what environment they come from,” Dara explained.

I was so saddened by what Dara said. Especially because I know that if Norwich, which is arguably a wealthy district compared to others in our area, is facing these issues, then so are all of our other schools.

I know there are countless agencies, organizations and churches out there who help those in need. They work hard, but apparently even their efforts aren’t enough to fill the entire need. It’s not a surprise really, that with the current economy, more and more people are in need of these services.

And perhaps, because some of these people have never needed these services before, they don’t know what’s out there or where to find them.

Then I thought of the Salvation Army thrift store in Norwich, which announced last week that it will be closing its doors later this month after 30 years of serving our community. It made me so angry. This is an organization for which I have always had the utmost respect, but I just can’t comprehend why they are choosing to close this store now, when we obviously need it the most.

I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. I got a call today from the son of the man who owns the building where the store is located. After my article on the thrift shop’s impending closure, which appeared last Friday, they have been inundated with calls, he told me. And they are trying to do everything they can to keep the store open. Tomorrow, he said, they will meet with officials from the Salvation Army to see what, if anything, can be done to keep this much needed organization in our community.

While that eased my mind a little, I still couldn’t stop thinking about these kids or get Dara’s words our of my head.

She’s right, of course: This is a community problem. Now the question is, how, as a community, can we help?

I’d love to hear your ideas.

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