Sept. 25, 2008
By Tim Simard
When Allen Brook School Principal John Terko told the Williston and Shelburne school boards at a recent meeting that teachers and staff needed a “good, solid understanding of poverty,” Lisa Lovelette knew exactly what he was talking about.
Lovelette, Williston’s school support coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education, worked as a principal in the Hardwick school system up until last year. Lovelette estimated that low-income students make up 65 percent of Hardwick’s school population, and said the high number brought her closer to the challenges faced by students living in poverty.
“We had many kids at the end of the day who had no one to go home to because both parents had to work,” Lovelette said, adding that many parents worked two or more jobs to make ends meet. “There was this visible absence of parents and we had kids staying (at school) long after the school day was done.”
Though Hardwick may have a greater percentage of low-income students than Williston, whose economically disadvantaged students make up roughly 10 percent of the school population, the local school district is trying to come up with solutions to a problem facing the entire state — the low test scores of students from poorer families.
Each year, Vermont public school students take the New England Common Assessment Program tests, better known as NECAPs. The tests monitor academic achievement and improvement in reading, math and writing. The testing area depends on grade, but regardless of subject or age, economically disadvantaged students regularly score well below the state average.
In 2007, across Vermont, the number of economically disadvantaged students scoring proficient or higher came in about 25 percentage points less than their peers in the three test subjects.
Williston’s 2007 scores had an even wider gap than the state average. The town’s economically disadvantaged students reaching proficiency in reading, math and writing was 43 percent, 49 percent and 33 percent, respectively. The percentages of other students attaining proficiency were 81 percent, 82 percent and 67 percent in reading, math and writing.
It’s the third consecutive year Williston has failed to meet federal improvement standards for the economically disadvantaged students, and Williston administrators are looking for solutions. Lovelette is helping the district understand the everyday challenges faced by the disadvantaged students.
Williston learns about poverty
Lovelette said there are many reasons low-income students fail to perform better, including the lack of proper medical care and the lack of a healthy diet. She said students with poor diets and health are easily distracted and unmotivated.
District Principal Walter Nardelli said that at a Vermont Principals’ Association meeting a few years ago, he read a report that stated economically disadvantaged students did not receive enough vocabulary lessons before reaching school. The report showed children were not being read to often enough, he said.
Lovelette noticed similar reading deficiencies while at Hardwick. She said teachers often worked harder with key students, reading to them and helping them comprehend reading material.
Also, some low-income students have missed out on pre-school learning, which can have an impact when entering kindergarten or first grade, Nardelli added.
“It really comes down to learning vocabulary in those early years,” Nardelli said. “Sometimes we’re fighting things that either happened or did not happen before the student even got to school.”
TheWilliston school district has made a concerted effort to reach out to parents of low-income students to get them better involved in their child’s learning, Nardelli said.
Gail Taylor, director of standards and assessments at the DOE, said parental involvement could be a huge influence on improving achievement. Getting both parties working together should be the goal of all schools in the state, she said.
“We need to make school a positive place to engage parents in the process, especially parents who are working two or more jobs,” Taylor said.
Terko said he’s been handing out articles and other materials for teachers to read and discuss. He said he’s held meetings with teachers in order to broaden understanding on poverty.
“Williston is a pretty affluent area and some people need more exposure to it (poverty),” Terko said.
The Allen Brook principal said he expects the number of economically disadvantaged students to rise in the future because of the current state of the economy.
“The job market is tough — they’re not hiring,” Terko said. “It’s putting a lot of stress on people.”
Lovelette said she hopes her experience can be beneficial and believes Williston is heading in the right direction.
“It’s not an easy fix,” Lovelette said. “I’m very hopeful for Williston because there is an incredible understanding from John (Terko) on poverty to improve student performance.”