‘One Chatham’ hosts panel on nexus of poverty and education

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Our Chatham, the Chatham News + Record and more than 50 community members and leaders gathered Wednesday night at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City for a nearly two-hour, and often passionate, conversation about poverty’s impact on education. 

Sponsored by Mountaire Farms and moderated by News + Record publisher Bill Horner III, the event featured five panelists who are involved with Chatham County Schools in various ways. The panel’s goal was to raise awareness within the community and brainstorm collaborative solutions to the educational struggles of students who grow up in poverty. 

Horner pointed out that more than one in five children in the United States live in poverty. Half of Chatham County’s 18 public schools are classified as Title I schools, meaning that they have a high percentage of low-income students. Title I schools are eligible to receive additional state funding to ensure that all students meet certain standards of achievement. 

Graphic artist Wendi Pillars sketches out the discussion during Wednesday’s One Chatham event/Charlotte Ririe

Panelist Chris Poston, executive director of elementary and middle grades for Chatham County Schools, said funds are delegated proportionally to Title I schools based on the number of free-and-reduced lunch students who attend the school. This funding is implemented schoolwide, so any student at a Title I school benefits from the additional investment in education. 

The panelists discussed at length the educational challenges for children living in poverty. 

Panelist Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, who grew up in poverty in Siler City, works for Chatham Communities in Schools, and she serves as the Student Support Specialist at Virginia Cross Elementary School. She said that while many low-income children have great potential, a lack of resources can hold them back. 

Part of the problem is that students who come from low-income families do not receive as much learning support at home. Poverty is often generational, so many parents do not have the time, knowledge or resources to provide a solid educational foundation outside of school. 

“I really think it starts the day that child is born and those barriers just build up,” said panelist Jaime Detzi, executive director of the Chatham Education Foundation.

The panel at Wednesday’s One Chatham discussion of poverty’s impact on education/Charlotte Ririe

Larry Savage, principal of Siler City Elementary School, said that schools need to “be at that hospital door” to help parents understand how they can prepare their child to be successful upon entering kindergarten. 

“I tell our parents all the time that they will always be their child’s greatest teacher,” said Savage, who has been at the school for five years and helped it achieve results academically and socially that beat the typical barriers hitting impoverished facilities. 

One of the best ways that parents can stimulate their children intellectually is by reading. Spending just a few minutes each night reading to a child, Poston said, can boost a child’s vocabulary tremendously. According to Poston, 20 minutes of reading a night will expose a child to around two million words by the time they reach sixth grade. 

But for many low-income parents, it’s not that simple. Parents may work long hours or they simply may not know how to best support their child.

An attendee pointed out that the issue doesn’t just start with students — many parents grew up experiencing the same educational barriers as their children.

“If I cannot read, how do I go home and read to my children?” she said.

The issue of educational achievement among low-income students is very complex. Many children living in poverty have needs that are more than just academic. Also discussed was the role that ACEs — adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, trauma and neglect — play in hindering student success.

According to panelist Tych Cowdin, program director of school-based programs for Chatham Communities in Schools, high levels of ACEs lead to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death. 

Cowdin said there is a high correlation between ACEs and poverty, and schools are working to address the social and emotional needs of students that may arise as a result of difficult experiences at home.

“The more we’re able to recognize that poverty and ACEs are related, the quicker we’ll be able to identify some ways to get to the educational outcomes that we’re really hoping to achieve going forward,” said Cowdin, who also spoke of the resiliency of kids in Chatham.

Another attendee’s question sparked a greater conversation about the intersection between race, poverty and public education. 

“If you’ve been to Chatham County, you know that race is a problem in our school system,” she said. “I often tell people that I was robbed from having a good education because of my Zip Code. And I still see this happening today.”

Mendoza Sosa – who made it a life goal to return to to Siler City and help those who grew up as she did – pointed out that a lack of staff of color is part of the problem. Students who come from families where money is an issue are often reluctant to pursue careers such as teaching, which is far from lucrative.

In fact, Cowdin noted some sobering statistics for North Carolina’s public education system: N.C. is ranked 37th in the nation for public education, 48th for school funding and 50th for principal salaries. 

“My children never saw a black male in any role in their schools, aside from gym teachers and custodial staff,” said Chatham County Commissioner Karen Howard, a former member of the Chatham County School Board. “And that’s important and that really matters. So if you don’t see yourself reflected in your environment, the likelihood that you will even consider teaching, tutoring or mentoring is slim to none.”

Video of highlights from the event by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

The panel agreed that any improvement in a child’s education will require help from the community, including businesses and church-based organizations, to deal with such troubles as a lack of transportation.

“If you are here, you care in some way, but I want to challenge you to take action,” Mendoza Sosa told the audience. “You can no longer say ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do,’ because we have told you.” 

According to the panel, community members can help by donating their time and resources. Members of the community can sign up to volunteer in the schools and become a tutor, mentor or lunch buddy. 

Those within the education community are, according to the panelists, doing the best they can to support impoverished students in Chatham County — but it is fundamentally a systemic issue.

“I feel that as a child who grew up in a low-income family, I still have a lot that poverty took away,” Mendoza Sosa said. “I just want you to know that poverty takes away opportunities.”

Also in attendance was new Siler City Police Chief Mike Wagner, who warned that if the school system isn’t taken care of, kids “end up in my system – the criminal and juvenile justice systems.”

“I think our energy should be directed toward our youth,” he said. “That’s our future.”

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