A Matter of “Class”

A recent article in the New York Times provoked a strong response from me, both personally and professionally.  In Helen Ladd’s and Edward Fiske’s opinion piece titled “Class matters: Why won’t we admit it?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/opinion/the-unaddressed-link-between-poverty-and-education.html) the author’s raise a very important question: “So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?”

The authors offer a few possible suggestions as to why the link is very often ignored, from overwhelming faith in our education system to “offset the effects of poverty” via innovations such as charter schools, to the belief that if all schools are held to increasingly high standards they will somehow meet those high standards and propel students to success.  Yet such beliefs mask uncomfortable truths – charter schools as a whole are not doing exceptionally better than public education and high standards often mean the deliberate teaching to the test or to specifically target a group of students (at the expense of others) that can be the difference to a school on the margins of failure or success.

As a mother of a five-year-old experiencing the joys of kindergarten, I am acutely aware of the advantages my daughter has over other children.  In her short five years, she has been on more plane rides than I ever took before going to college 3,000 miles away from home. She has been to countless museums, debating whether the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum is better than the ShakeZone at the Kidspace Museum. She is a whiz on computers, moving seamlessly between desktop and laptop, but with a preference for my smartphone.  She has been exposed to multiple languages, knows what a French horn is and believes she can be a scientist-ballerina-doctor-chef-astronaut when she grows up. The advantages she has today are directly attributed to the education both my husband and I have received, the knowledge we’ve gained from our professional networks, and the jobs we have that make it possible for us to pursue our interests and widen hers.

Unfortunately, as the article rightly points out, not all children have these opportunities and not all schools can make up for what they don’t have.  As a teacher for many years, I worked with children whose families never set foot outside the 5-mile radius of our city.  Other children in my classes had never seen the beach, had never touched snow, did not have a library card and had very little understanding about the notion of “going away” to college. Our limited field trip budgets only allowed for 1 field trip per year per class, limiting the connections we could make between knowledge learned in texts with knowledge gained from the real world. Because we could not offer sustained music and art classes, and get to other vital subject areas like science and history because of the importance of math and reading, our classes were split up during what we called “mix time.” During this time, a single grade level would split up their classes for a two-three week period and teach subjects that simply could not be taught during the regular school day.  I was lucky to be teaching in a grade level with seven teachers where we could offer music, art, dance, science, physical education and other exploratory subjects.  Other grades were not so fortunate.

I am no longer teaching and it saddens me to see what is happening to teachers and the constraints imposed upon them. I am dismayed by the budget challenges and the ongoing slashing of funds to both education and social services.  Yet, during this time of fiscal constraint and questionable education policy decisions, the importance of exposing kids to new opportunities and new ideas has never been greater.  The demand for a workforce that can compete in a global economy is considerable, yet the experiences and knowledge students gain in the classroom are insufficient preparation to meet this demand.  They need the kinds of experiences my daughter has had in her five years of living – experiences that expose her to new opportunities, enrich her perspective and allow her to believe she can grow up to be anyone she wants to be.

The authors say, “Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policymakers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.” At LACEF, we take this mandate to heart and aim to provide students from underserved communities with the opportunities and experiences that they do not and can not receive from home, from their schools and from their communities.  At Blue Sky Meadow, we offer programs that enable students to see what it means to do science like a scientist.  Through our work with the juvenile justice system, we pilot innovative career technical education programs that position kids who have not done well in a traditional school setting to capitalize on their talents and develop skills that boost their confidence and lead to viable futures.  Our recent summit on school health centers with leaders in the public, private, government and nonprofit sectors made clear the importance of being healthy and have access to health care if we expect our students to do well in school and in life.

Why LACEF does this is for the same reason I do this for my daughter. First, we do this because we believe in our kids and we need them to believe that they have something very special to contribute to this world.  Secondly, we do this because it makes sense. Kids are our assets – among them are the next doctors, inventors, artists, etc – and it is our moral imperative to provide them with the kinds of opportunities and experiences that fulfill their potential.  As a mother, I am the champion of my child. As LACEF, we champion kids and their infinite possibilities – family background or circumstance will not stand in the way.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Leticia Bustillos, LACEF Director of Programs

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“Achieving the Dream” and Its Connection to Education and Health

The cover story on the November 14 edition of Time Magazine shed some interesting light on the interconnection of education and upward mobility in the U.S. The Time news stories underscore precisely why LACEF’s mission to interconnect education with health is vitally important.
Can You Still Move Up in America?” by Rana Foroohar and an accompanying article “Whatever Happened to Upward Mobility?” paint a bleak picture of persons who don’t get a good start in education from their earliest age and fail to succeed in school past college age.

The Time articles issue a blunt assessment: Americans have experienced absolute upward mobility gains over previous generations, but U.S. residents have fallen dramatically behind in relative mobility in comparison to people of other nations. According to Brookings Institution research, and studies by the Pew’s Economic Mobility Project and Opportunity Nation, several European nations are doing far better than we are in the U.S. as it relates to an individual’s economic mobility. The reports note that many of these foreign nations lack the U.S.’s population diversity, a factor that can boost inequality.

The article also compares a person’s likelihood of advancing or “achieving the dream” to their access to education and health, or the lack of access to one or both. As we have made advances in technology, middle-income jobs have decreased. The idea to combat this shift is to improve education to slow or halt our upward mobility downward slide. In other words, when access to education improves and technological achievement advances, more jobs will be created. The Time article also cites personal medical crises as a reason one-third of the population is in a cycle of poverty. The magazine cites research that finds that a person’s general health status has a big impact on upward mobility.
Time used a “Mobility Matrix” to show the likelihood of an individual reaching the middle class (annual income 300-percent of poverty level), though the moving up is strongly influenced by a mix of factors: race, geography, health and education. The research concludes that if a person succeeds at life stages from early childhood to adulthood, then that person has an 85-percent chance of reaching middle class status.

Take away one or more of the above achievements, and you can imagine that a person’s upward mobility percentage starts to drop significantly.

This is where LACEF enters the picture. We believe there are influences that must occur on the front end of a person’s life to enable them to achieve success later in life as a working adult. Our Stay Well Learn Well® School Health Centers Initiative focuses on supporting school health clinics in Los Angeles County through funding and advocacy. Education budget cuts have slashed causing a deep drop in school nurse and preventive health programs at schools in Los Angeles County. School health centers are needed now more than ever with rising costs of healthcare and an over-burdened hospital and health clinic system.

Active, fit and healthy teens perform better in school and record better classroom attendance that leads to better grades and higher test scores. Healthy children stay in school longer and graduate from high school. LACEF’s vision is that all primary and secondary students must have access to high-quality preventive and primary health care services close to where they live. LACEF is promoting health partnerships that will lead to the launch of new school health centers that deliver quality care to eliminate learning barriers at neighborhood schools.

America was once the leader in education and job creation. Foreign nations now claim those titles. If access to education and health is not provided early on, our nation will pay the price with higher drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, youths incarcerated in the juvenile justice system, and disaffected youth in general. Our initiative focuses on giving young people the skills to become productive citizens so they may help our country regain competitiveness and improve our society overall.

Dawn D. Turner
Chief Operating Officer, LACEF