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?

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