Jackson Elementary Principal Kristen Moisson is reluctant to talk about her school’s success.
The school has been named a Department of Public Instruction School of Recognition six times. The school’s poverty rate is usually upwards of 80 percent, yet all measures show Jackson student growth and achievement well above average.
Talking about her school’s success, she said, often follows a conversation about poverty. But that’s not how she sees the families at the school. Her kids are smart and capable. Their families are loving and engaged in their children’s successes. To use the label “living in poverty” diminishes who they are, Moisson said.
To her, families are families, all unique and all capable of succeeding. She adds no caveats, makes no disclaimers and offers no excuses.
That attitude has resulted in academic success at Jackson.
The Janesville School District, where the percentage of economically disadvantaged children rose from 25% in 2006 to 52% in 2019, is looking for a better way to reach kids who live in poverty.
Moisson’s attitude and her school could represent what the district is trying to achieve.
The working poor
The state Department of Public Instruction uses eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches as the yardstick to measure economic disadvantage.
Children in households with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meals. For a family of four, that’s $34,630 a year, the equivalent of $628 a week or about $15.70 an hour. That’s gross income before deductions.
For a family of two, 130% of the poverty level is $21,398 or $412 a week or $10.30 an hour.
The unemployment rate in the Janesville area remains at about 3%, meaning most families living in poverty have jobs, Superintendent Steve Pophal said.
But hourly pay of $13, $14 or $15 means they are just getting by.
The stressors they face are constant: transportation, safe and affordable housing, safe and affordable child care, and insurance, Pophal said.
Children living in poverty tend to arrive at school with fewer literacy skills, and the gap between them and their more well-to-do classmates increases as they go through the school system.
“The kid from a resourced home goes home for the summer, and they’re going to go on vacation and to museums. At home, they’re in clubs, and they’re going to the library,” Pophal said. “The kids from families where parents are working multiple jobs are going to be kind of left to their own resources.”
As those children grow older and fall farther behind, they are more likely to become disengaged from school, more likely to be truant and less likely to graduate on time.
Instead of blaming parents for failing to have the time, energy or money of their middle-class counterparts, Pophal believes the educational system needs to change the way it does business.
What happens to that kid who doesn’t have the same kind of home as his or her middle-class counterpart?
“How often do our teachers inadvertently assign homework that actually requires resources, like they need paper or they need markers?” Pophal said. “And if I go home to an environment that’s void of all those things, already I’m at a disadvantage. Or consider the kid that goes home that has no connection to the internet.”
That child is unlikely to come back to school and say to his or her teacher, “I don’t have any markers at home.” Or maybe he does the assignment in pencil, and gets a poor grade.
“The problem is that kids will very quickly make a decision: ‘I’m not good at this,’” Pophal said. “And so now I’m coming to school with my homework, and it’s not done or not done very well, and I’m getting bad grades.”
School then becomes a place where a kid feels, “I’m not good at this,” or “I don’t belong.”
Educational consultant Rick Wormeli looks at the idea of deficit thinking and poverty in his blog post on the Association For Middle Level Education.
Deficit thinking places the blame for the lack of learning or behavioral problems and the children and their families, rather that addressing what the schools could do differently. On the political right, deficit thinking manifests itself in the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. On the political left, the tendency is to say, “Oh those poor kids” and then try to help by offering unchallenging curriculum because that’s “all those kids can handle.”
Both ideas are equally damaging, Wormeli writes.
Drawing from a variety of sources, Wormeli examines the time constraints and emotional load of students and working families who live close to the poverty line.
While middle-class parents feel harried and overly busy, it’s usually because their lives are full. The emotional drain on the working poor has to do with food and shelter. How will we meet this month’s rent? What about the electric bill and the heat?
Hearts and minds
The district has approached the issue in practical ways. High school students now have Chromebooks they can take home. Students who don’t have internet access at home can get a hot spot from the district.
Most schools have “closets” where students can get free clothing. The district offers free bus passes and other services.
But for Moisson and her staff, what matters most is mindset.
Moisson is protective of her families. Any label, even one as innocuous as “low income” doesn’t work for her.
“We have the belief that all children can learn,” Moisson said. “They bring what they bring to school. Every child comes in with a unique package, and we meet them where they are; we meet their needs—whether it be socially, emotionally or academically.”
Meeting needs means being a resource for both the practical and the academic.
Practical items might include winter coats, the opportunity to use the school’s washer and dryer, help with transportation or connecting families and children with an agency that can help them with a particular need.
Many of Jackson’s students have attended more than one school in a year—some have been to as many as seven—and that means a lot of missed time in the classroom.
“Boost periods,” common in many schools, provide additional help in math and reading. Teachers use a technique called “scaffolding” to weave basics with new materials to help them catch up.
It’s also about remembering what resources—such as felt-tip markers—students have at home.
But most of all, it’s a mindset, Moisson said.
Teachers must respect families and invite them into the equation without patronizing or making judgements. Teachers must believe that students can learn, she said.
It seems to be working. The state’s report card’s show Jackson’s students do consistently well on “growth scores” which measure how much children have progressed in a year. The same report card has listed Jackson as a standout school for a number of years.
It’s a partnership between the school and families and kids that makes the system work, Moisson said.
“We love them,” Moisson said.
“We really do.”