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Whitewater schools address child poverty

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Kayla Bunge
September 18, 2009
— The city’s schools are teeming with children in poverty, but teachers and administrators are working hard to help them navigate the choppy waters.

Children from low-income families come to school with many more risk factors for failure than children from middle-class families, said Jo Bernhardt, principal at Lincoln Elementary School. And schools have a unique and challenging job of making sure all children, regardless of their socioeconomic status, have the skills and experiences they need to succeed, she said.


Bernhardt on Thursday addressed the topic as part of a program on child poverty sponsored by the Whitewater League of Women Voters.


“It’s all of us together,” she said. “If one of us struggles, we all struggle.”


Bernhardt said the number of students in the Whitewater schools who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch has increased in the last five years. An average of one-third of elementary-school students were eligible for free lunches last school year, she said.


Bernhardt said children in poverty often struggle in school. They are stressed out more often. They are sick more often. And they are have fewer opportunities and experiences than other children, she said.


“But we have to focus on the assets rather than the deficits,” she said. “(The problems) there, and we have to understand them and deal with them, but we need to make sure that’s not an excuse.”


Bernhardt said the Whitewater School District has worked to better reach out to families in need, to connect them with resources in the schools and the community, to help the children get the most out of their education. She cited partnerships with the Whitewater Food Pantry, the Clothes Closet and other organizations that provide assistance to those in need.


Bernhardt said teachers also are building in students “resiliency and response-ability,” or teaching children the skills they need to best respond to the many challenges they might face.


She also talked about other ways the school district is addressing the needs of students, including encouraging enrollment in 4-year-old kindergarten so children can build a solid educational foundation.


“A good education transforms children,” she said. “It’s the key to success.”


Sabrina Gentile, governmental relations manager for the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, began the program Thursday with a brief presentation about Vision 2020 campaign, a statewide initiative to end childhood poverty.


She said the Vision 2020 campaign hinges on making sure families have access to affordable housing, good-paying jobs, comprehensive health care and quality day care and education.


But the only way to realize that vision is to build a network of poverty advocates, she said.



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