By Chris Kieffer
Sometimes Darren Kennedy doesn’t do his school projects.
Darren, 13, is a bright seventh grader in the Nettleton School District with a budding creativity and a particular talent for writing and drawing. But he’s also old enough to understand his family’s financial struggles. And as much as his mother – Becky Kennedy – tries to avoid it, that sometimes affects his studies.
“I can see it a lot, really and truly,” Becky Kennedy said. “He won’t tell me if he has a project due because he thinks it costs extra money to do projects.
“And so he won’t tell me about them. He just won’t do them. That is hard, and it bothers me. There are poster boards for like 50 cents, and he won’t do a project with a poster board, he won’t tell me about it because it costs money.”
Kennedy’s husband, Jamie, works at Lane Furniture’s Saltillo plant but has seen his hours cut dramatically as that plant goes through financial difficulties and uncertainty about its future. Becky left her job as a daycare worker after her hours were significantly reduced during the height of the economic downturn. Since then, she is studying to become an elementary school teacher and earn a second income.
She is currently in her senior year at Blue Mountain College, but isn’t sure how she will get the couple of hundred dollars she will need to take the two Praxis tests she must pass before she can teach. The family, which also includes son Will, 10, works hard to be self sufficient, relying heavily on an abundance of canned vegetables from their garden.
They’re trying hard to break through, but Becky admits it is difficult. And the financial strain places extra stress on her children.
“It wears people down because it makes you stress, and it makes you worry about what is going to happen next,” she said.
If Mississippi is to improve its educational system, the socioeconomic challenges of the state and its residents must be carefully considered as part of the solution. Research indicates students from poverty, as well as those born to teenage mothers or to unmarried mothers – challenges the Kennedys don’t face – tend not to perform as well in school as students not in those circumstances.
Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom of the country in all three factors. And the correlation between these factors and school performance is striking.
So what does it mean?
The Daily Journal’s “State of Our Schools” series continues this week with a seven-day look at the impact that poverty as well as births to unwed and teen mothers have on education. These factors should not be excuses for low-performing schools, but they are a key piece of the state’s education fabric.
“Poverty, family structure and teen pregnancy have enormous effects on a child’s ability to benefit from education,” said Claiborne Barksdale, the chief executive officer of the Barksdale Reading Institute, which places high-quality principals in low-performing, high poverty schools.
In Mississippi communities whose school districts have an “A” grade from the Mississippi Department of Education, the average median household income is more than $46,000 a year. In those whose district has an “F” grade, the average income is below $25,000, according to a Daily Journal analysis based on 2013 rankings.
Communities with “F” districts have teenagers who are nearly three times more likely to be pregnant than those in communities with “A” districts. More than three out of four births in “F” communities are to unmarried mothers, compared to one out of four in communities whose school districts have the highest ranking.
In fact, for each drop of a district’s grade level – from “A” to “F” – the median household income also falls. For each drop in level, the percentages of both teenage mothers and unmarried mothers rise.
“Every failing district in this state is poverty stricken,” said Richard Boyd, former Mississippi state superintendent of education who has long had an interest in better educating students of poverty.
The data cuts two ways.
In one sense, communities with bad schools face a host of social and economic ills because their schools are not better preparing students for success in the world.
On the other hand, one reason those schools struggle is that they face obstacles others don’t. Each year, many of those failing districts are trying to educate students who arrive at the schoolhouse door with a host of challenges that makes educating them more difficult.
It means schools must find better ways to educate students from difficult family environments, that communities must provide more supports and that organizations and policy makers should consider educational solutions that go beyond classrooms.
“I think if we eliminate many of the components or aspects of poverty itself, I think we will get a better educational product,” said the Rev. James Hull, a longtime community activist in Tupelo. “…If you help people become more economically empowered, if you help people become more judicious in their financial management, if you help people become more employed, then I think you will have an impact on the educational system.”
Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First, disagrees.
“One of the things that people always conflate is the difference between the cause of a problem and the solution to a problem,” Canter said. “Are there a lot of problems caused by poverty? Yes. But does that mean that we have to solve poverty in order to fix those problems? Not necessarily.”
Canter said too many people use poverty as an excuse for poor-performing schools.
“We need to have a different attitude toward educating kids in poverty,” she said. “We don’t need to throw up our hands and say this is something we can’t overcome.
“…Yes it is hard. But if we just continue to throw up our hands and say we are not going to fix this until we fix poverty, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Canter points to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to random students in all states in the country. Highly regarded by educators, NAEP is the best current measure for comparing the achievement of one state to another.
On the 2011 test, Mississippi’s economically disadvantaged students scored worse than those in many other states. But so did its non-poor students.
For instance, on fourth-grade math, 38 states scored better than Mississippi for students in poverty, while 11 scored the same and only Washington, D.C., scored worse. For students not in poverty, 34 states did better than Mississippi, 16 scored the same and none scored worse.
If Mississippi’s problem is that its low-income students are struggling, Canter said, why aren’t its non-poor kids doing better compared to other states? And why do some states’ low-income students score better than those in Mississippi, she asked.
Boyd, the former state superintendent, also has had a long interest with NAEP scores. He said Mississippi’s low ranking on the assessment is reflective of its high poverty.
When Boyd was a member of the Executive Committee of the Council of Chief State School Officers in 1988, he asked a psychometrician to use demographic conditions in each state to see what would happen to the rankings. Mississippi rose from 48th to ninth.
“If you take NAEP and the other things that we measure and use a level playing field and then measure it, you get entirely different results,” he said.
Andy Mullins, who spent his career trying to reform education in the state, said Mississippi’s poverty is its greatest hurdle to overcome. Mullins, who was on former Gov. William Winter’s staff when the Education Reform Act was passed in 1982 and later worked in the state Department of Education, retired in June as chief of staff to the University of Mississippi chancellor.
“If you are talking about education reform in Mississippi, you have to talk about the effects of poverty, generational poverty, on the children,” Mullins said.
Then there are the family structure issues that are often connected to poverty and present additional challenges to students. The rise of unmarried mothers creates more household stress and environments where students potentially have less support. The high number of teenage pregnancies generates situations where children are raising children.
Mississippi ranks last in the country in median income ($37,095), last in children living in poverty (34.7 percent) and last in children born to unmarried mothers (54 percent). It is 49th in teenage births (50.2 births per every 1,000 teens).
“It has made for an inseparable burden for a state like Mississippi with low per-capita income to provide the resources necessary to break through that barrier that has held us back as long as anybody can remember,” said former Gov. William Winter, known for his educational advocacy.
“…We have made commendable progress,” he said. “I have to salute the state for the progress it has made in so many ways. But I also have to remind myself and the rest of us that we’ve had to come so far and we still have so far to go.”
The number of births to unmarried mothers has risen rapidly in recent years. In 1980, 28 percent of Mississippi babies were born to unmarried mothers. Ten years later, that total was 40 percent, and today it is 54 percent.
Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE Foundation who studies economic development and educational improvement, said the number of fractured families in Mississippi has reached a “tipping point.”
“It is growing so rapidly in society and in particularly in Mississippi, it is to a crucial point. It is something that needs to be turned around as quickly as possible because we can not continue to go down this path and have the educational and economic results that we all desire,” he said.
Gov. Phil Bryant has made reducing teenage pregnancy one of his top priorities, talking about the subject in his inaugural address and later creating a statewide task force.
“If our teens continue to fail and drop out of school and struggle with not just one child, but perhaps two or three as a teenage mom then we will not have the workforce capable of bringing in the Yokohama tire companies and the Toyotas and the Nissans and the GEs,” he said while addressing teen pregnancy during a town hall meeting in Tupelo.
“It won’t exist any more. There will be a finite number of educated children in this state that we can go out and say to companies bring your new high-tech, advanced manufacturing industry here because we have the workforce to do it. We’re going to have to turn this around.”
The Mississippi Teacher Corps and Teach For America programs both focus on helping students of poverty and those from challenging home environments to succeed. Each recruits top-caliber college graduates and sends them to some of the state’s most challenging schools.
Both Mullins, who co-founded the Mississippi Teacher Corps, and Ron Nurnberg, the executive director of TFA – Mississippi, said schools can’t make excuses but will need to do things differently.
“What we know is kids from all income levels, given the opportunity, can learn,” Nurnberg said. “There is nothing wrong with cognitive, but they need longer days, more weeks of school to catch up to what is maybe naturally occurring in homes of higher income.”
Kennedy, the Nettleton mother, said communication is important – for her children’s teachers to be aware of some of her sons’ challenges and for them to let her know about upcoming projects, so she can make sure they get completed.
Also important as Mississippi continues education reform efforts will be an increased awareness of the challenges presented by poverty, teenage pregnancy and births to unmarried mothers. The fact is that they exist in high numbers in this state, and knowledge of their impact will be important to overcoming them.
“If you put those type of stresses on a household, they’re going to have challenges within a school, as far as outcomes go,” said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. “What that really emphasizes for me is that we need to be looking at a comprehensive approach, not just to reform education, but also to develop communities as well.
“…It is all inter-connected and we need to recognize education reform is important but if it is just looked at in isolation of all of the other challenges we are facing, we are never going to be successful.”