Kids living in poverty have little chance at education

Students at Stewart Middle School, on Tacoma’s East Side, have tested so poorly, so consistently, the state will now intervene. And Stewart is far from unique. Across Washington — and the nation — some schools seem incorrigible, immune to improvement.

The problem, however, may not be the schools per se but the grinding poverty of their students.

Some years ago, the late Pastor Ron Vignec took me to Stewart, where staff members were hustling cash to pay a student’s light bill. Apparently the student did well until early winter, when shorter days made it too dark to read her homework. Keeping the lights on wasn’t her mom’s top priority.

I know, my heart’s bleeding. Good education should trump tough life, right? And it does, to a point. Skilled, focused educators can and do make a difference for poor kids every day. But the more we learn about the effects of poverty, the more hopeless schools like Stewart seem.

Let’s start with nutrition. Poor kids eat a high-starch, low-protein diet and then are expected to ingest integer inequalities with absolute values. Or are asked to explain and compare development of major societies from A.D. 650 to 1400 in two or more regions of the world. This is like having Cheetos and Cherry Coke for breakfast and then presenting your annual budget. Sure, it’s possible. But it’s not very smart.

And nutrition is the least of it, thanks to school meal programs. Stress is worse than bad food. The problem can start in utero, where prenatal stress — poor blood flow, low nutritional quality, trauma or poor overall maternal health — can damage lifelong memory capacity. The fetuses of impoverished mothers are more prone to higher stress and so more likely — when they reach school age — to have diminished ability to recall words, facts and formulas. These kids are behind the curve before they leave the birth canal.

After they’re born, it gets worse. Almost by definition, being poor means having little control over one’s environment. Put another way, stuff happens, often without warning: The car breaks down. There’s no hot water. We’re out of milk.

The more unpredictable life is, the more stress. And guess what? Stress alters pathways in the brain, reducing for hours, days or a lifetime the ability to perform cognitive tasks. To think, in other words.

You can try this at home. Have a screaming fight with a family member and then do the crossword puzzle. Are “dumb” and “lazy” really four-letter words for “unable to focus?”

If all that’s not bad enough, let’s add the well-publicized conversation deficit, in which poor kids experience one-tenth the language interaction of middle-class kids by the time they start kindergarten. Holy integer inequalities! A poor kid is a long shot by nap time.

We can give them smaller classes and better-trained teachers, reduce how often the family moves, help parents help with homework. But there’s a limit. By the time poor kids show up in middle school, a lot of them are toast.

That sounds ugly but it’s true. The only systemic way to fix the problem of poor kids performing badly is to fix poverty before the kids are born. Whether we take that step is a different discussion, but it looks like we pay now or pay later. And the price keeps going up.

Ken Miller was a commissioner of the Tacoma Housing Authority when it launched an innovative effort to reduce housing turnover among low-income students. As a VISTA volunteer he worked with poor families in Salishan.