Sunday, February 16, 2014

Poverty Hidden in Georgetown Schools

Published in the Sun February 15, 2014

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.  There should not be a district of one square mile, without a school in it, not founded by a charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people themselves.”

John Adams, US President, 1785

Rob Dyer, principal of Mitchell Elementary School, visited one of his students at home last November.  The child lived out a county road in a broken down Winnebago camper with no electricity.  Daddy was working in another town.  A garden hose in the yard provided water.  A toilet in the camper could be flushed by pouring a bucket into it, washing the sewage into a pit behind the house.  Mom cooked on a propane burner in a metal shed attached to the camper.  She was working a minimum wage job as a caregiver, but with an infant to take along with her, a four year old to pick up from pre-k at noon, and a seven year old to pick up in mid-afternoon, it was difficult to make ends meet.  Luckily, Rob and his staff were able to help get the four year old enrolled in Head Start, and Backpack Buddies sent the seven year old home with a bag of food every weekend.  Unfortunately, this family is not particularly unusual at Mitchell.

Most of us like to think of Georgetown as an affluent community:  techies, university professors, and comfortable retirees soaking up suburban bliss between exotic vacations.  Maybe so, but the schools here exist in an alternate universe.  Of the 4,941 students in Georgetown’s elementary schools, almost 57% are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free or reduced price lunch and breakfast.  A family of four with an annual income less than $42,000 qualifies for reduced lunch prices, meaning that thanks to money from the US Department of Agriculture a child pays 40 cents instead of $2.20 for a nutritious lunch.  At Mitchell Elementary in southeast Georgetown, 73% of the children qualify for free or reduced lunches.  Mr. Dyer knows for sure that many of those kids are not gathering around the family table for meatloaf and peas in the evening.  In fact, some don’t get supper at all and are really hungry for a school breakfast the next day.

At this point some reader will be compelled to write to me explaining that dried beans are highly nutritious and cost only $1.20 a pound so there is no reason for any child to go to bed hungry.  Just be forewarned that if you actually write such a letter you will be conscripted to organize and teach the Mitchell dried bean education project.

Due to some special food service grants, Mitchell Elementary is able to provide free breakfast to all students, without regard to their socioeconomic status.  Mr. Dyer prefers the free-for-all approach.  For one thing, nobody is singled out as a free-breakfast kid, and frankly a lot of rich kids are missing breakfast too, just because it’s hard to get breakfast if you are already late for the bus.  He and his daughter frequently enjoy the convenience of breakfast at school.  He points out that when kids start the day well-fed they pay attention in school and have fewer behavior problems.  He seems a bit embarrassed about advocating that lunch and breakfast be provided for all his students as part of the school’s mission.  “I have very conservative values, but there are some things that are sacred, and caring for kids is one of those sacred values.”  He wants his kids to be healthy, happy, and productive, and feeding them is pretty basic to that goal.

Mr. Dyer goes on to explain that many people think poverty means the parents are sitting around watching TV, looking for a government handout.  He knows what his school families are doing, where they are living and where they are working because they have to provide that information when they register for school.  He says the vast majority are working, but a minimum wage job at $7.25 an hour will pay $15,000 a year if it is full time and lasts all year.  Even if both parents worked for that much, the children would still qualify for the lunch program.  Median rent in Georgetown is over $900 a month, or $11,000 a year, which doesn’t leave much left over for utilities and groceries.  Many Mitchell families are doubled up in rent houses, some even in rented rooms, and how do you get to your minimum wage job when the car breaks down?

I asked Mr. Dyer if he could wave a magic wand and get anything for his kids, besides food, what would it be?  He didn’t hesitate.  He would have a city-wide grid of safe, filtered WiFi.  A laptop computer for every child would be the icing on the cake.  That way, even if the home could not afford internet access, the child (and the parents) could be computer literate in this modern world where computer literacy is just as necessary as reading.  To illustrate his point he pulls out a map.  A mobile home community in Mitchell’s district just east of town was an internet desert until a tech-savvy donor installed a WiFi transmitter for less than $500.  Now the kids can keep up with the teachers’ webpages, do their homework and research, and the parents can use it as well.  Over 57 American cities have begun providing some level of municpal WiFi, and the smart ones are basing it on a high speed fiberoptic network that also attracts industry.  Mr. Dyer points out that Belton is setting up a city-wide municipal network through the Belton Wireless Project.  If Belton can do it, surely Georgetown can.  After all, if we are going to demand free wireless in our coffee shops, shouldn’t we insist on it for all of our students?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Recycling Doubles Under Single-Stream

Published in the Sun February 13, 2014

Thursday is trash day on my street.  On Thursday mornings, as far as the eye can see in both directions, the curb is punctuated with 95 gallon bins.  Two sit in front of each house, one with a black lid and the other tan, all arranged neatly against the curb before 7 AM.  Compliance of this degree is rarely seen in our individualistic society, but we are highly motivated to get rid of our trash.

The average American generates 4.4 pounds of municipal waste every day, 1606 pounds every year.  A family of four would generate more than 3 tons of waste annually.  Being orderly people, we want that waste to go away promptly so we are not buried under a mountain of junk mail, food boxes, and yard trimmings.  Of course, the trash doesn’t really “go away”, as in disappear forever.  It just changes location.  The final destination for Georgetown trash is the Texas Disposal Systems (TDS) landfill and recycling facility at Creedmoor, southeast of Austin. 

In the fall of 2012, Georgetown began single-stream recycling.  When the 95 gallon recycling bins first arrived, many customers complained that they were too big and wanted to trade them in for smaller versions.  At my house there was no complaining.  We fill that sucker every time.  The trash, on the other hand has diminished to approximately one small kitchen bag a week.  In fact, the kitchen trash usually gets taken out because it is stinky, not because it is full.  Friends have told me that they generate so little trash it seems a waste of effort to push the bin down the driveway every week.

I asked Verna Browning, Community Relations Manager at TDS, how we are doing at single-stream recycling.  In the month before the new bins were delivered, Georgetown recycled 244 tons of material.  We have more than doubled that amount to 503 tons in December 2013.  That means about 6000 tons of material were diverted away from the landfill this past year.  Sun City seems to be doing the most recycling, which should give the rest of us some competitive motivation to get on the stick.

Although the recycled materials have economic worth as raw materials, the real savings comes from preserving landfill space.  Building new landfills is outrageously expensive.  Wasting stuff has never been a really good economic strategy.

In addition to recycling, Georgetown elementary schools are also composting their lunchroom waste.  The children are taught to separate their trash as they leave the cafeteria.  Food, milk cartons, and napkins go for composting.  Water bottles and aluminum cans go into single-stream recycling.  What can’t be recycled goes into the trash.  This small discipline on the part of these young children results in about 7 pounds of waste per child per month being diverted from the landfill.  In the middle schools, which are not yet composting, less than 1 pound per student per month is recycled.  You might look at these numbers and ask why the middle schoolers are recycling so little, or you might also ask why the little kids are wasting so much food!

Ms. Browning has three reminders for readers who want to be good recyclers.  First, 13% of the stuff that gets put in the recycling containers is inappropriate and belongs in the regular trash so look at the list of recyclable items at  Styrofoam cannot be recycled so please put it in the regular trash (or better yet, don’t use Styrofoam.)   If you recycle boxes, be sure that all Styrofoam inserts have been removed.  Second, if you want to recycle your plastic bags and plastic film wrappers, they must be put into a yellow stuffer bag available from the city.  Putting them inside another plastic bag is not good enough because the bags break and jam up the recycling equipment.  If you don’t want to get a yellow stuffer bag then all plastic films and bags must be put in the trash.  Third, yard waste composting will begin in March.  Yard waste must be put in compostable paper bags or in a container clearly marked “Yard Waste” in big letters.  If your leaves are in a black plastic bag, they will go to the landfill.

Gardeners consider bagged leaves a valuable commodity for the compost pile.  Bags that contain only leaves are welcome at Getsemani Community Garden at the corner of Church and East 20th Street.

These items DO NOT belong in recycling bins:  Styrofoam, loose plastic bags, hazardous waste (chemicals and paint), pet food bags, pet waste, lightbulbs, batteries, aerosol cans, motor oil containers, coat hangars, clothing, garden hoses, potato chip bags, wine corks, single use coffee cups, yard waste.