The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Every day a reality check at city’s ‘poorest’ school

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

Janie Carey works at the intersection of poverty and education.

Carey is principal at Thurgood Marshall Elementary on Station Avenue, where more than 90 percent of the 240 or so students are economically disadvantaged: that is, eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

Teachers there do much more than teach, Carey says. They become involved in the lives of their students to the point they drive them to family night and other special events at the school, buy tickets for them to attend attractions the students otherwise would never get to experience, and come in early and stay late to make sure their charges get the best possible education and start in life.

In a typical day last month , Carey had to deal with a male parent who was crying because he did not want his children to end up in juvenile detention like he had, a sobbing child who needed the prescription medication her parent presumably sold on the street and three ill students, including one threatening suicide, who required emergency medical intervention.

The doors of this inner-city school swing both ways, especially around the first of the month, when the rent comes due. In the first semester of this school year, there were 203 new entries/ withdrawals. In an average year, more than 40 percent of the school’s population will turn over as the families bounce from rental to rental.

“We have a very large rental population,” Carey says. “We see that change the first of the month. Every first of the month, we gain a few, and we lose a few.”

Carey has a heart for these students and their parents, although she and the teachers seldom see the latter. For example, for student conferences in February, Carey counted only 10 parents who took the time to meet with their children’s teachers.

The list of members in the school’s Parent Teacher Organization is likewise short: four names. As bad as that sounds, it is a 100-percent increase over the previous year.

“They are trying to survive, and education isn’t that important,” Carey says of the parents.

If Carey wants to draw parents to the school, she knows the best bait is an event featuring free food. She’s had 150 come out for the family fun/ pizza nights.

Carey also knows that the free lunch 92 percent of her students receive at the school is the only meal many of them will get that day. In the summer, the school hosts free breakfast and lunch programs, which serve up to 80 youngsters, age birth to 18. G.O. Ministries, around the corner, picks up the evening meal.

Some of the hardship is caused by bad decisions and addictions; Carey won’t deny that. But she also knows there’s an economic reality that keeps poor people poor and trapped in the cycle of entitlements.

“I’ve had parents who are very compassionate and very hardworking, tell me that when they get a job they will lose their benefits, their medical card, their food stamps,” she says. “They can make it better not working than trying to get a job that pays what a person with only a high-school education can make.”

Either way, poverty provides poor preparation for learning.

“The kids don’t have what we call prior-knowledge experience,” Carey says. For example, a teacher can’t teach about zoo animals or rural life without going back to the very basics because there are many concepts the youngsters have not been exposed to through life experience. “They have no prior experience, so we are starting at a lower level,” she says.

This fact was driven home to Carey three months after she started her job at the school. Every Thanksgiving, the staff prepares and serves a holiday dinner to the students – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie – the works. As Carey ate with the younger students, she realized the youngsters were tasting food they’d never before had in their mouths. The emotional impact was too much.

“I had to walk back downstairs,” she says. “I understood where they were coming from, to see children so happy and so excited over a meal. Some of them who had pumpkin pie did not know what it was.”

In a similar incident, the school lunch menu was Oriental and included fortune cookies.

“The little kids were complaining, they’d never seen paper in their cookies,” she says. “It was cute, but it was also sad.”

Carey knows the economy in Ashtabula is not entirely to blame for this situation but feels it is a factor. She says the parents she works with desperately need to improve their own educational levels and thereby improve their chances of getting higher-paying work. Yet, they are reluctant to tap into the resources that will get them there, like the Adult Basic Education program formerly offered at the building.

“I think they are afraid to ask for help because they don’t want to be looked down upon,” Carey says of the parents.

Many of the parents she works with are paying for mistakes they made when they were younger, one or two bad decisions that set the course of their lives — and, all too often, those of their children, as well.

“We get so many parents who come in and tell us they don’t want their kids to make the mistakes they made,” Carey says.