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What should be done to battle poverty’s impact on learning? Ohio will consider funding these steps

A study that could impact how Ohio funds programs targeting the achievement gap between rich and poor students says broad services are needed to support low-income students but that maintaining staffing and high expectations also play a role.

Local educators say they have programs in place that meet many of the recommendations — including expanding early childhood education, providing social, health and mental health services, and boosting access to career-tech programs — but the report released last week could help secure formal funding for those programs statewide.

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“The information compiled (by) the task force will give the legislature a greater understanding of the effects that growing up in poverty has on student achievement,” said state Rep. Bob Cupp, R-Lima, chairman of the Ohio Speaker’s Task Force on Education and Poverty.

“These insights will be helpful as policy-makers work on effective ways to lift the academic achievements of all students, and thereby help provide a pathway out of poverty and toward economic and personal success.”

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Cupp’s comments, paired with incoming governor Mike DeWine’s stated focus on helping low-income children, set a backdrop for next spring’s state budget process.

“If you look at the essential functions of government, one is to help the most vulnerable,” DeWine said last week when asked about his children’s agenda. “These are children that I think we have a moral obligation to reach out to.”

Achievement gap

For decades, Ohio researchers have pointed to a near straight-line correlation between schools’ poverty level and their performance on state tests, with lower-income communities scoring lower. Some low-income students score high and some high-income students score poorly, but the overall averages have remained similar for many years.

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Locally, Oakwood and Springboro are among the 3 percent of school districts statewide with the fewest “economically disadvantaged” students, and they consistently rank at or near the top locally in academic performance. Dayton, Trotwood and Northridge schools rank in the opposite 3 percent economically, and they posted the three lowest state test indices in the area in September.

The task force heard presentations on the achievement gap, with Cupp calling it “one of the most significant issues in primary and secondary education today.”

School approaches

Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said the district is pushing many of the same issues the task force focused on. DPS is developing a school-based health care option for next school year, and its behavioral health expansion includes employing five social/emotional consultants.

The district partners with Preschool Promise on preschool improvements and with Sinclair Community College on adding career tech classes.

“The goal of each of these initiatives is to break the barriers that poverty causes and create opportunities and experiences for each student in the Dayton Public Schools,” Lolli said.

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In Mad River schools, where more than 60 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, Superintendent Chad Wyen has built a range of health and social supports – mobile dentist visits, screening for drug and alcohol issues as well as depression and anxiety, mentoring partnerships to help the schools’ most “trauma-impacted” students and more.

But he said there are further steps he wishes the district could take, which would require more funding.

“We currently offer preschool tuition-free to all students ages 3-to-4, (but) this is on a first-come, first-serve basis, and we only have to capacity to serve 170 students,” Wyen said. “I would love to expand and offer this to every 3- to 4-year-old in our district.”

Full recommendations

In addition to supporting early childhood education, career tech programs, and social, health and mental health services, the report targeted three other key topics. It called for recruiting and supporting teachers who understand poverty-related barriers, maintaining high expectations of students and studying existing programs aimed at closing achievement gaps to measure their return on investment.

Huber Heights City Schools officials say they regularly review their curriculum with achievement gaps in mind, and have held staff training on gap issues, as well as “culturally responsive” educational approaches.

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“HHCS still continues to have high standards and expectations for students. These high standards include providing support and encouragement for students to succeed,” district officials said in a statement.

Task Force Member Karen Boch, superintendent of the Wellston school district in southern Ohio, summed up a key challenge of solving school/poverty problems with a statewide approach.

“Addressing poverty isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and it has to be tackled from different angles to support families and communities living in impoverished areas,” she said. “What works for one community may not work in another. There are also significant differences between rural and urban poverty as it relates to resource availability.”

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