How Kent County is trying to improve the odds for low-income students

Charles Honey is a staff writer for School News Network , an online news site of the Kent ISD covering Kent County public schools. He formerly covered religion and education for The Grand Rapids Press. Charles Honey is a staff writer for School News Network, an online news site of the Kent ISD covering Kent County public schools. He formerly covered religion and education for The Grand Rapids Press.

I knew there was poverty in northern Kent County, but I didn’t know it felt this cold.

Flossie Bliss sat in a plastic lawn chair in her mobile home, wrapped in a coat. The November chill seeping through a crack around the door overpowered a space heater, her gas having been shut off for lack of payment. She had no good beds, so Bliss and her four daughters were sleeping on the floor.

Meanwhile, the girls went to Cedar Springs Public Schools each day, trying to learn math equations and the analytical reading skills of the Common Core. I was stunned by the contrast between what they were trying to achieve in school and what they were up against in their cramped, chilly home.

This single mom trying to support her kids on $10 an hour was one of the most striking examples of poverty I saw in a year-long series for School News Network. Along with other SNN reporters, I wrote about the burden of poverty for Kent County public-school students, how it follows them to the classroom, and what teachers, social-service agencies and community allies are trying to do about it.

In chronicling this “backpack of heartache,” as we called it, I saw not just the cold realities of poverty even in relatively prosperous West Michigan. I also saw how a team approach of school and community can make a significant difference for students like Flossie’s children; how teachers can combine compassion and innovative instruction to help their students do well; and how students like Jordan Lovett can overcome the odds with enough grit and support.

Jordan attended Godfrey-Lee, Kent County’s poorest district, but she was an honors student and cross-country standout. This fall she’ll attend Aquinas College seeking a degree in social work.

Hers is an encouraging story, considering poverty’s permeating influence on everything from students’ nutrition to their test scores. About 24 percent of Michigan’s children under 18 live in poverty. In districts like Godfrey-Lee and Grand Rapids, between 80 percent and 90 percent of students are eligible for a free or reduced-priced lunch. Not surprisingly, their test scores were among the lowest in the county – an inverse correlation we found in almost all districts.

It’s easy to look at these numbers, throw up your hands and say, “We’ll never solve this.” Except that’s not true.

Take Godwin Heights, an industrial district in suburban Wyoming. It is the second-poorest district in the Kent ISD. But at North Godwin Elementary, students’ MEAP scores were on a par with those at affluent East Grand Rapids.

What’s going on there? According to a report by Erin Albanese, a combination of high expectations, teachers learning from each other and getting parents involved has earned North Godwin statewide recognition for beating the odds.

I also saw impressive odds-beating at Grand Rapids’ Palmer Elementary School, where non-English-speaking students from Bosnia and Congo add challenges to a low-income population. Yet its students test at the top of other high-poverty GRPS schools. In the second-grade classrooms of Vicki Boase and Amy Topp, I saw orderly, well-structured instruction combined with loving attention to individual students. They exemplify the research that one effective teacher can make a lifelong difference for students.

Twenty miles north in Cedar Springs, I saw how poverty can be exacerbated by scarce social services. In this 110-square-mile rural district, it can be hard for a mom to get her child’s vision checked. But thanks to the Kent School Services Network, a collaboration of the Kent ISD and community partners, medical providers and counselors bring services right to the schools ‒ and even to students’ homes.

In Flossie Bliss’ case, she was able to get community-donated beds and her heat turned back on with the help of KSSN worker Jodi West. Bliss said she was “forever grateful,” and that her girls were sleeping better.

Modest gains, perhaps, in her daughters’ complex tangle of problems. But I’ll bet they remember the time their community showed care for them. Who knows how that lesson may benefit them in school, and for years down the road.

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