Unpacking Poverty: Three Steps to Ensuring Educational Success for All

Written by

Terri Wright
Terri Wright Terri D. Wright is the director of the newly established Center for School, Health & Education Division of Public Health Policy and Practice at the American Public Health Association. She will provide leadership to the strategic development and integration of public health in school-based health care and education. She recently retired from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, MI where she served for 12 years as a program director for health policy. In that capacity Terri developed and reviewed the Foundation’s health programming priorities and initiatives, evaluated and recommended proposals for funding, and administered projects and initiatives. She also assisted in public policy analysis and related policy program development, as well as provided leadership to the Foundation’s school-based health care policy program. Previously, Terri was maternal and child health director and bureau chief for Child and Family Services at the Michigan Department of Community Health in Lansing, Michigan. In that role, she managed policy, programs and resources with the goal of reducing preventable maternal, infant, and child morbidity and mortality through policy and programming. She received her bachelor’s degree in community and school health, as well as her New York State certification in secondary school education from the City University of New York and her master’s of public health degree in health planning and administration from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is currently a doctoral student in public health at the University of Michigan. Terri takes an active leadership role in several professional associations and community organizations including the American Public Health Association and the Institute of Medicine’s Roundtable on the Promotion of Health Equity and the Elimination of Health Disparities.

Step One: Call It Out

Education has been labeled the “civil rights issue of our time.” Dropout factories––high schools where no more than 60% of the students that start as freshmen make it to their senior year––has become a common-day term. These low-performing public schools tend to be in the poorest zip codes across our country. The negative impacts of poverty on the health and education of students is well documented, mostly affecting kids of color who tend to live in lower-income communities.

Experts have shown us that these schools are tougher to turn around because their students “live in poverty.” When we consider poverty as one major issue, it feels insurmountable and overwhelming. In efforts to create even playing fields, we tinker around the edges of support. We offer tutoring and mentoring programs, ask for stronger teachers and better classrooms. These are tremendously valuable. However, they are part of an easier, short-term fix. These well-intentioned programs and arguments address the symptoms of poverty. They do not help identify and address the core issues of poverty that lead to students dropping out.

The hard fix is to call out the specific conditions that kids live in, conditions that have a profound impact on their school performance. What social and economic complexities are they facing on a day-to-day basis? What does it really mean to “live in poverty?” We must unpack the face of poverty to address how it impacts the lives of students–– traumatic stress from exposure to repeated violence, hunger, homelessness, untreated health conditions, intermittent electricity, substance abuse—the list is endless. However, school-based health centers can help.

School-based health centers provide students with primary, preventive and mental health care. Because they are located onsite and operated by a trusted, multi- disciplinary staff, centers are well positioned to identify poverty-related barriers to school success and help students manage challenges. They serve as a safe haven, identifying and connecting students and families to critical resources. They also serve as advisers to teachers and principals on how best to support their students.

Step Two: Provide a Safe Space

A pilot program rolling out next month in a Detroit, Michigan school-based health center addresses poverty head on. A commonly used instrument to assess student health risks has been adapted to help identify those issues specific to poverty, such as:

  • In the past three months, did you ever miss school because you had to take care of someone, work, or had problems getting to school?
  • In the past 12 months, have you ever had to stay in a shelter, motel, or some other place because you didn’t have a home to stay in?
  • In the past three months, was it ever hard to study or do your homework because you didn’t have electricity?

The questionnaire is online, ensuring that students feel safe and confident that their responses are confidential, thus encouraging honest responses. Often, barriers faced by students are not isolated incidences. Understanding what conditions individual students face sheds light on what may be happening school wide, enabling staff to respond with programmatic and policy solutions.

In collaboration with the school, the Detroit school-based health center was designed to meet the needs of its student body. For example, students shared that limited access to running water at home made it impossible for them to wash their clothes or take a shower. They were worried about being teased for having body odor and wearing dirty clothes. The center now offers a washing machine and shower, reducing stress and burdens that might otherwise lead to bullying and absenteeism.

Having a school-based strategy to address poverty-related issues faced by students allows us—as a community—to foster healthy environments that support student success and graduation, putting them one step closer to ending the vicious cycle of poverty.

Step Three: Act NOW

I challenge thought leaders and policymakers to develop their own sensitivities about the complexities faced by young people and help mediate those issues. Let’s get to the root causes of poverty and move beyond treating the symptoms. It’s up to us to give all kids opportunities for educational success. They deserve it.

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