Tackling Poverty the Right Way: A Reply to Elaine Weiss by Joe Hawkins

Written by: Joe Hawkins

In her well stated piece, Tackling Poverty the Right Way, Elaine Weiss wrote, “As our poverty rate rises, then, and as achievement gaps rise in tandem, we must protect what has helped to alleviate poverty’s effects, even as we improve our analysis of what families need and deepen our commitment to providing that support.”

What jumps out here is the need to improve analyses. Specifically, I believe Elaine is suggesting that we make a commitment to better understand poverty in Montgomery County and how poverty impacts students, families, communities, and our schools.

I would like to share two suggestions for improving our understanding of poverty. And my suggestions assume that the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and the Montgomery County government would work together.

Suggestion #1: Make a long-term commitment to following and documenting the lives of the poor in Montgomery County.

As a district, MCPS has never undertaken a thorough analysis and understanding of what it means to be poor. Traditionally, MCPS only views being “poor” through the lense of the federal FARMS program. FARMS stands for free and reduced meals. Schools use FARMS as a stand-in indicator for poverty. Students eligible for FARMS are labeled “poor.”

I have always viewed FARMS as a simple “sign post,” and only that. Sure, it tells us which students and families are poor—economically challenged, but it tells us very little about those families and their needs. We need to improve our analysis of what challenged means.

I would like to see MCPS and the county government commit to periodically following and documenting the lives of the poor. And there are proven ways to do this. For example, without reinventing anything, we could commit to using the federal government’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS) program, which is designed to examine child development, school readiness, and early school experiences. Click here to learn more about ECLS: http://nces.ed.gov/ecls/index.asp. For decades, ECLS has provided researchers and policy makers with a wealth of data. We need such insights and it is time we commit to such activities.

Suggestion #2: Pick a specific poor Montgomery County neighborhood or community and commit to understanding every aspect of life in that community.

Now, on one level, MCPS and the county government are doing this via The Kennedy Cluster Project. Click here to learn more about the project: http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/bulletin/article.aspx?id=42064

However, to date, the Kennedy Cluster Project has failed to produce a single informative public report on the status of the project. I’m not even sure officials could describe, with details, life in the Kennedy Cluster. There have been a number of public hearings on the project, but at these hearings, officials mostly have stated that little is known yet.

Perhaps, the Kennedy Cluster Project staff should take a short drive over to Langley Park and quiz Casa de Maryland staff about how they’ve accomplished what they’ve accomplished with “Langley Park” Project.

If you have not paid attention to what Casa de Maryland is doing in Langley Park, you are missing out on what I would call a great example of how a poor and challenged community is being thoroughly studied and then supported with a wide variety of new programs and initiatives. Click here to read Casa’s Cradle to Career report:
http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/413164-From-Cradle-to-Career.pdf

Click here to learn more about what Casa is doing in Langley Park:
http://casademaryland.org/pressroom/new-research-reveals-langley-park-children-and-families-face-severe-barriers-to-achievement/

At the end of the day, because it has done its homework, including thoroughly analyzing the students and families it plans to serve, Casa is positioned for success. Because it has not done its homework, MCPS and the county government are at best positioned to continue saying to the public that it knows little about the lives of the poor living in the Kennedy Cluster. We can and must do better.

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