Heads of Bartow County, Cartersville City school systems discuss students' socioeconomic hardships

CLASS STRUGGLE School system leaders address poverty, achievement gap

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With American Community Survey data indicating one out of five children in Bartow County lives beneath the poverty line, the leaders of both the county and city school systems agree that addressing the needs of impoverished students is a major concern heading into the new school year.

"Among our economically disadvantaged students, we're seeing similar trends from past years," said Bartow County School System (BCSS) Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page. "We're focused on making sure that we're meeting their basic needs, that we're giving them the support services that not only they need, but their families need in a lot of areas."

Cartersville City Schools (CCS) Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach said his system's approach this year will be similar.

"When you start the year, you look at where your students are and what are they facing," he said. "We're going to make sure we meet those needs, just those basic needs — food, academics, everything ... we have things in place through our school social workers that can help if a family is in need of various things, and we're going to work with them on an individual basis."

But students in each system aren't just facing poverty — indeed, hundreds of students in both county and city schools are counted as homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act's Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program.

According to Georgia Department of Education data published last year, an estimated 1.82 percent of BCSS students experienced homelessness during the 2015-2016 school year. For CCS students, the number was 4.15 percent.

Heading into this school year, however, Feuerbach said the issue of homeless and transient students doesn't constitute a crisis.

"It's definitely not a problem. But, do we have students who come from families who are going through a tougher time, or maybe fallen on bad times?" he said. "We do, but again, we have our school social workers in place who work with those families."

Nor did Page consider student homelessness/transience an enormous problem within the county school system heading into the 2018-19 calendar.

"We've got social workers on the ground, meeting with the kids," he said. "We're reaching out to our community partners, our faith leaders and groups along with other civic groups within our community when they say 'hey, we've got a family that could use some help,' ... knowing where to go and knowing what resources are available is the best thing we're doing now in our district."

Per Georgia Department of Education data, the total number of BCSS students who experienced homelessness declined from 447 in 2013 to 271 in 2016. The total number of CCS students who experienced homelessness during that same time frame increased from 101 to 193.

In the 2016 statewide EHCY tabulations, about 68 percent of BCSS students who experienced poverty were white; 12.8 percent were black, 6 percent were Hispanic, 14.2 percent were unaccompanied youth and 19 percent were students with disabilities.

The CCS homeless student numbers paint a different demographical portrait. There, 55.3 percent of students who experienced poverty were black; 20.4 percent where white, 11.3 percent were Hispanic, 4.6 percent were unaccompanied youth and 25 percent were students with disabilities.

And those socioeconomic struggles appear to have a palpable influence on academic achievement. 

Within the county school system, barely 20 percent of children who experienced homelessness tested proficient or distinguished in either math or English language arts.

In the city school system, students who experienced homelessness fared even worse, with just 18.4 percent testing proficient or distinguished in English language arts and only 17 percent testing proficient or distinguished in math. 

"I think we've got students who are succeeding in all of our groups," Page said. "I  wouldn't say we just have one particular group of kids who aren't doing well, we have kids in all areas and all groups doing well and we have in all groups kids that we've got to continue to work with and see how we can better help them close the learning gap, or even in some cases motivate them better to do a better job in their schoolwork."

Feuerbach said CSS' plan to address the achievement gap hinges on the data they receive from the last school year. 

"So there isn't necessarily a trend with one group or another, but we're going to look at it and see does a gap exist and then address that gap," he said. "But furthermore, it's breaking down those individual students and looking at what needs are met and that's something that's ongoing from day one to day 180."

Feuerbach said that economic hardships are undoubtedly a factor in student underperformance.

"Anytime someone faces something in life such as poverty, that is difficult and it throws a few more challenges," he said. "You may wonder where you're going to eat your next meal, or where you're going to put your head at night or what roof you're going to sleep under."

Page agrees.

"In my past experiences, the kids who are living in poverty, the kids who are struggling economically, they face certain issues that other kids might not have to," he said. "With that, we need to be cognizant of it, we need to make sure our counselors and our social workers and all of our community support groups are being able to identify who those students are, but also who their families are — as you improve the family, you're able to improve the student."

Concerning his system's plans to further address student poverty and academic underachievement, Page said it's first and foremost a matter of crunching data and determining which students are being impacted.

"We're not trying to just fix it all by ourselves, but to reach out to our communities and those groups in our community can serve as a strong resource to meet the needs of those kids, but also their families."

Solving the dual problem of student poverty and academic underperformance, Feuerbach said, remains an ongoing process.

"Academically, we're going to look at areas where kids need a little more assistance, a little more help and we're going to drill down and look at that data and how can we help them grow in the areas they may be struggling with," he said. "And on the other side ... what other things are we doing to help them along the way, whether it's through Backpack Buddies or something of that nature? How are we supporting them and their families through the process as well?"