Teacher Swap: Poverty and race

(Lee County) February 9, 2006 - One kindergarten teacher from rural Lee County swapped with another from suburban Lexington-Richland Five. All week we've been looking at the things that affect a five year old's readiness to learn. So far, we've looked at the classroom and parental involvement, and now WIS is examining the effect of poverty and race.

In kindergarten, there's always time to dance to your own beat, always time for breakfast, always time for careful examination. After three days at Harbison West, the five year olds are drawn to Tamala Stuckey.

And at Lower Lee, they're all being "good" for Jan Westmoreland-Sipes. They had a good time too, a little singing, a little dancing, and a lot of learning. But eventually the questions came, "Is Ms. Stuckey going to be here tomorrow?"

Some students may have noticed a difference, but Stuckey and Westmoreland-Sipes say after swapping for three days, they didn't. But the communities in which they teach are quite different.

Stuckey's view on the way to work every morning includes cottonfields hugging the highway heading to Lower Lee and poverty once you get there. Ninety-five percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch. It's no surprise considering the average household income in Lee County is about $10,000 less than the state average.

Principal Harriet Brevard says teaching kids who live in poverty poses some unique problems, "If I'm reading a book about a day at the beach followed by some fun or a visit to the mall, a child who has experienced that brings a higher level of comprehension to that story. If you've never been to the beach, or don't do a lot of mall shopping, someone's got to tell you what is a mall."

But even kids who practically live across the street from a mall can also be in need.

At Harbison West Principal Franklin Foster says, "Our free and reduced lunch is about 60 percent right now"

It's surprising since the average household income in Lexington-Richland Five is close to $40,000. That's above the state average.

Foster says a few years ago, the apartment complex that's next door to the school became a subsidized housing complex. A third of the students at Harbison-West live there, "You have families and parents that work long hours and may not be there to provide the structure and stability that the kids need."

"Plus we have some children come in from families seven, eight and nine children and very possible a single parent working two jobs and they don't have the time we had a long time ago with the children."

Westmoreland-Sipes has been there 25 years. She remembers when she had more mothers who were stay-at-home moms and had time to be more involved.

Now, since many moms can't stay home, they take school home. Through a program called Countdown to Kindergarten, over the summer, Westmoreland-Sipes made several visits to more than a dozen of the kindergartners she'd be teaching.

Stuckey did the same thing in Lee County with Kimberly King's son. King says, "I was very appreciative of that because he could read while he was out for the summer. She gave him work that he could go over to prepare him and get him ready for kindergarten."

King's noticed it's made a difference for Corey. While WIS was in Lee County, we noticed something too. Nearly every child in kindergarten at Lower Lee was black. At the nearby private school, Robert E. Lee Academy, every kindergartner in the class was white.

When WIS' Craig Melvin asks, "Why aren't there more black kids here?"

Virginia Stokes of Lee Academy says, "It's a low, soci-economic area and the folks here who are able to have jobs in the area, those are not high-paying jobs, so some simply just can't afford it."

When we swapped two students a few months ago, we noticed the same thing. Like Lower Lee Elementary, Estill High School in rural Hampton County has scored unsatisfactory nearly every year on its school report card. Nearly every child at Estill is also black and the vast majority of them also live in poverty. Both school districts were part of a recent lawsuit claiming the state doesn't provide the opportunity for a minimally-adequate education in rural areas.

The judge in the case said "a child born to poverty is already behind."

In a footnote, the judge also says, "race and poverty were essentially one and the same."

One of the school district's attorneys interprets that to mean "so everytime he says a poor child has been denied a constitutional opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education, he means it's an African-American child."

Steve Morrison thinks it's South Carolina's history, "We've systematically for generations failed to provide the opportunity to acquire a minimally adequate education for African-American poor people in the most isolated districts. You have parents and grandparents who never received an opportunity and the children going to the same school aren't currently seeing an opportunity."

Posted 6:05pm by Chantelle Janelle