Blog: The Educated Reporter

Experts: Education Key to Breaking Cycle of Poverty in South, Nation

Ron Walker speaks at the 67th National Seminar.

In more than a dozen states across the South and West, students from low-income families make up the majority of public school enrollment. Those students are more likely to be black, Hispanic or Native American.

Other trends emerge from there. Those minority students, particularly males, are more likely to be suspended or expelled. They are more likely to drop out. They fall into cycles that inhibit their chances to break the cycle of poverty.

Experts say inadequate efforts to meet the needs of those fast-growing demographics hurt the nation’s global competitiveness. The socioeconomic changes coupled with higher academic expectations, they say, create a perfect storm. It is the education crisis of our time.

“If we don’t figure out how to make education work for these kids, we’re going to have one heck of a time really alleviating poverty, creating more upward mobility,” said Kent McGuire, president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, speaking at EWA’s National Seminar in May in Nashville. “That will have huge implications at the end of the day for prosperity, certainly in the South … (and) for the nation.”

The reality of poverty and its impact first became clear for Ron Walker when he visited Mississippi in the 1960s and later, when he visited one of his former students in prison. “It is absolutely, in my mind, unfathomable to think that you can lift yourself up out of deep poverty without having a … strong, educational framework to support you. It can’t be done,” said Walker, executive director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color.

The data have been around for years. The White House recently acknowledged the inequities in public schools, such as disproportionate rates of discipline for minority students. Inequity with resources with funding, teacher quality and other resources continues despite the knowledge of its existence.

McGuire said the investment in education does not match the need.

Walker and McGuire said school officials should be more deliberate in how they spend money to help students from poor families.

Teachers, administrators and counselors should get training to better understand how to work with low-income students and minorities. They should know about different cultures.

Reporters should be curious about what poverty is a proxy for, McGuire said. He described the links between poverty, health issues, absences and the school to prison pipeline.

Here are other areas reporters should monitor to hone in on issues of poverty and inequity in their daily coverage:

  • Look at the rates of boys and minority students placed special education programs compared with gifted programs.
  • Examine variations in students’ opportunities to learn.
  • Pay attention to dropout rates and discipline data. Do those students go on to earn a GED and do they make a successful transition to college? Where are those students? What are their challenges and circumstances in life? How are schools meeting, or failing to meet, their needs?
  • Tell the success stories. Profile students who beat the odds.
  • Investigate spending. Where is the investment going? How are school leaders allocating money to help low-income students?
  • Explore what school leaders are doing for their neediest students. Are there gender specific classes? Are boys learning about character and rites of passage? Are officials extending the school day and school year to better help students? Do students have safe places to play? Is there arts instruction? Is there instruction on different cultures?
  • Look at training. What, if anything, are teachers learning about meeting the needs of students from different cultures? What support do the teachers get?
  • Pay attention to the rollout of Common Core and how educators accommodate non-native English speakers and students with disabilities.

Other resources:

Southern Education Foundation’s report on poverty in public schools 

USED guidance on school discipline 



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