LAKE STEVENS — Teachers, bus drivers, office staff and other school employees are gearing up for school to start, but took time Thursday morning to hear a message administrators say will be key this year.
It was about poverty, and what it looks like for the families and children affected. Education often is cited as the most powerful tool for overcoming poverty, yet students from low-income families are less likely than their peers to graduate on time and go to college, and more likely to drop out or have discipline problems, according to state data.
A few months ago, the Lake Stevens School District reviewed academic performance among different groups of students. It was no surprise to see that those living in poverty were less likely to do well in school, Superintendent Amy Beth Cook said.
“We’re no different than any other district that way,” she said.
The goal is to make education fair and accessible for those students. To kick things off this year, a speaker from Oregon shared her story of growing up in poverty.
Donna Beegle told educators that she remembers not understanding the words her teachers used. She came from a family of migrant workers — her mother and grandmother picked cotton, the kids picked fruit — and most of her loved ones didn’t read or write. Teachers would tell her to look up words she didn’t recognize.
“I’d go to the dictionary and find five more words I didn’t know, that no one living in my war zone of generational poverty would know, and I had no one to ask,” she said.
She stressed to her audience that people gravitate toward others with similar backgrounds. It’s easy to make assumptions about people when you rarely interact, she said.
“I grew up believing that people didn’t care,” Beegle said. “But I learned that it’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t know.”
Angry kids might be seen as bad students, when the root of their anger is a family’s struggle. Parents who don’t come to school conferences might be perceived as not loving enough. She remembers how her mom never went because she was uneducated and didn’t want to make a fool of herself. Yet there was no one more proud of her children, Beegle said.
Poverty teaches people they’re not good enough, she said.
“We’ve got to change that statistic that kids in poverty are least likely to get an education,” Beegle said.
In Snohomish County, more than 43,000 students in elementary through high school qualified for free or reduced lunches in 2016, a program based on income and often used to define or track poverty in Washington schools. That’s about a third of students.
In some local districts, nearly half of students received free or discount meals.
Lake Stevens had nearly 2,400 students in the program, or about 28 percent. A decade ago, that number was 22 percent.
Karen Coulombe teaches at Cavelero Mid High. She tries to make her classroom a level playing field, but Beegle got her thinking about lack of access to public resources.
Coulombe once told a student that he could go to the library for free. He had no idea, she said.
“The things you and I think are free, they’re not free if you don’t have a ride or you don’t know about it,” Coulombe said.
She knows what poverty is like. Hers was situational, when she was in high school. She now understands how that differs from generational poverty, which is lifelong rather than a sudden shift in circumstances. Still, her experience helps her relate.
Cook worries about lack of opportunity for students from low-income families. She’s glad the district eliminated “pay-to-play” athletics and added buses for after-school activities. She wants employees to have a deeper understanding of poverty, she said.
“We’re a little sheltered in Lake Stevens, but I do work with students who come from difficult home lives,” said Kathy Holder, who teaches fourth grade at Glenwood Elementary and serves on the Lake Stevens City Council.
Beegle’s message about not judging hit home.
“As a teacher, we have to be understanding of our students’ life circumstances, and that those circumstances are beyond their control,” she said. “We just need to be more aware of how they’re feeling when they walk in the classroom, and what they’re carrying on their shoulders through that door.”
School for most students starts Wednesday in Snohomish County districts.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.