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The recent ruling in the Turner vs. Clayton School District case has again brought attention to the struggling and in some cases failing urban public education system in our region, state and across the country. I have yet to hear from the many who are chiming in on this important regional challenge on the part of the problem that I believe has the largest bearing on a childís educational success: the prevalence of poverty in their home and neighborhood. The crux of the case, which makes great sense from a parental point of view, is that an unaccredited school system does not provide a fair educational opportunity as opposed to an accredited school system. No one can deny this assertion. Many others in our community are and will be debating a variety of issues around this ruling and bringing passion around ensuring the highest quality education for every child in the region is certainly the right thing to do.
Few if any of the voices around what is being called ďthe Turner Fix" are talking about the consequences of poverty on children, their families and their neighborhoods. Unless we address this topic all the other conversations about who pays for public education, who benefits, teacher performance and many other educational topics will be irrelevant. Not irrelevant in that the financial stability of school districts, quality teachers, appropriate curriculum, dynamic administrators are not absolutes that need to be in place for our children to succeed, but irrelevant in that without addressing all the challenges being faced by children, their families and their neighborhoods make all the prior mentioned absolutes impotent to affect real, meaningful and long-lasting change.
We donít need another study to tell us that a child living with stress due to hunger, violence, at risk of being homeless, poor health or just the day-to-day struggles of being poor will not maximize his or her educational opportunities. Nor can their parents, as much as they desire, provide the type of support needed and necessary to enable that childís educational success. In the Normandy School District over 90% of the children receive free and reduced lunches which mean over 90% of the children live in poverty. This does not mean that these children canít succeed in school but rather it mandates we address the consequences of living in poverty. Another great example of the challenges that poverty brings is the City of St. Louis and Normandy School Districts among others both have an annual mobility rate in their districts of over 50% - meaning that from the start of the school year in August to the end of a school year in June over 50% of the children have let or are new students How do we expect children to learn if they lead such an incredibly transitory life and in turn how do we expect school districts to fare well on standardized tests when they do not have the opportunity to fully teach half the children in their class rooms? As child I remember that a new student in my class was a really big event because it happened so infrequently.
Why are these families moving? We donít know all the answers but we do know that a variety of problems stemming from living in poverty include inability to pay rent regularly, struggles paying a mortgage, challenges keeping utilities on, crime and violence in your neighborhood and so much more. All of these issues require strategic thinking and allocation of significant resources starting today. The debate about public education in St. Louis region should not be allowed to move forward without the inclusion of the strength of the family and the strength of neighborhoods where our children live.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Chris Krehmeyer is the President/CEO of Beyond Housing, a Neighborworks America organization in St. Louis, Missouri. He has served in that capacity since 1993. Chris has or currently sits on a variety of boards and has been an adjunct faculty member at Washington University teaching a class in social entrepreneurship. Chris is married with three children and has an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies from Washington University.