Poverty rates climbing in Georgia schools

Ty Tagami
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

English teacher Alyssa Montooth said many are from single-parent households, with no one to push them to study. Some have jobs. They don’t eat well. They don’t get enough sleep. And they’re not doing homework like they used to.

Montooth teaches seniors at Druid Hills High School in DeKalb County, where the poverty rate climbed 11 percentage points in her nine years, to 55 percent.

“These kids are so worried about so many other things that they’re getting harder and harder to reach,” she said. “It’s like school is an afterthought.” Six years ago, she wrote three dozen college recommendation letters. Last year, it was 17. So far this year, she’s written three.

Yet it was worse at Cedar Grove High, where she taught in the early 2000s, in economically-depressed south DeKalb. Montooth remembers neighborhoods battered by foreclosures. Many of the students were transient.

“The place was absolutely off the hook all the time,” Montooth said. “Kids at Cedar Grove would be outwardly rude to me. Like kids in the hall, I’d say, ‘Hey, take off your hat.’ And they’d say, ‘Hey, **** you.’”

Nearly three-fourths of DeKalb students come from low-income homes, up from half in the late 1990s. Superintendent Michael Thurmond said the “pathologies of poverty” — homelessness, hunger, domestic violence, medical or mental health problems, disengaged parents — are difficult to address in suburban schools because social services are concentrated in the inner city. Thurmond is a former director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services.

Schools need a closer collaboration with state caseworkers, he said. “We expect teachers to be social workers, but they’re not. All of these problems come to the schoolhouse, but they originate outside the schoolhouse.”

DeKalb has lost some engaged parents, such as Barbara Bowman, who moved away last year. She enrolled her first child in DeKalb schools in 1995, when the district had a reputation for excellence. The next year, the poverty rate climbed above 50 percent. By the time her fourth child was at Lakeside High School, she felt the quality had slipped.

One teacher showed Disney videos all day, Bowman said, and another sold cosmetics. The toilets were in disrepair. Her complaints to administrators yielded defensiveness rather than solutions, Bowman said.

“It was just kind of a free-for-all,” she said.

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6 Responses to Poverty rates climbing in Georgia schools

  1. tracy says:

    Lakeside HS had the girls’ toilets across from the cafeteria flushing with hot water for several years circa 99-03 or so. That was interesting! The teachers there were a mixed bag of excellence and apathy.

    One of the biggest issues that I saw was that my children were being pushed into the college prep track, and it was never mentioned that there were other programs, such as culinary or beauty or automotive. Not all kids should go to college, and not all kids who do go to college need calculus. Most will never use it.

    On the other hand, every one of us needs basic accounting, and household management (budgeting etc), and Useful Math, if not Construction Math! How to use that pesky carpenter’s square – much more useful for many than algebra2!

    We’re so hell bent on sending everyone to college to get a higher education that we have lost focus on giving everyone the basic education they need for everyday life. Let’s concentrate on making sure that every graduate can function in the world, that they know why they should know who is vice president, that they know basic history (google JayWalking, or Texas student polls), that they know what compound and simple interest is, that they understand “underwater” on a loan. Let them learn to budget, and what they will have to pay for.

    Teach them respect and kindness.

  2. Acheolus says:

    There are places in DeKalb schools where students can get these skills, usually by joining the JROTC, marching band, or other community based, student leadership driven programs. These groups help serve as a necessary middle ground between the schoolhouse and the home. The teachers and instructors of these groups usually work with parents much more often than the PTSA or administration, and can be a big help in keeping a school functioning and safe.

  3. Formerdekalbteacher says:

    tracy, I couldn’t agree more. The material taught in the classroom itself–and the attitude embraced there–needs to be aligned with life beyond high school. No one asks, “What are you doing after high school?” The question is always, “Where are you going to college?” Kids go to college because it is expected of them, and for many it’s a demoralizing waste of time.

    I taught in another system where they had an automotive shop on campus, cosmetology, and other trade-based programs. Those kids were proud of the skills they learned and ready for the workplace when they graduated. I am guessing my hairdresser and my mechanic (and plumbers, carpenters, most tradespeople) make more than those who go to college for one year and drop out to take a job working a cash register somewhere.

  4. kirklunde says:

    Give Superintendent Thurmond credit for expanding career training. He has recognized and acted on the things Tracy said.

    It is too bad he is setting up what appears to be a sham charter school as part of the expanded career training. We need to watch where the money goes very carefully.

  5. September says:

    We really need to offer programs that students find relevant. If you know you won’t be attending college you should be offered classes that will help you get a good job after graduation. That would be motivating and students with a realistic goal will have fewer discipline issues. Why bother with difficult HS classes when you know the only job you are likely to get after graduation involves low level work you could do without that diploma. Students who complete a technical diploma can always attend a community college to pick up classes needed to qualify for college. There is no reason to tell a student that the college track in HS is the only good option.

  6. Stan Jester says:

    As Lee Iaccoca said, “Passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.” Indeed, education is the “on ramp” to a prosperous and enjoyable life.

    So many children are deprived of a vision they can see as relevant and achievable; affording them the comforts and happiness associated with a middle-class life. Every child’s vision doesn’t necessarily lead to a 4-year degree, but it should lead to work and careers that are satisfying and fruitful. In fact, we now see jobs that require some specialized training have higher average salaries than many requiring a 4-year degree.

    We must do more than talk about “career readiness” or set up disparate programs.

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