Poverty an Hour’s Drive From Campus

The Southern Educational Foundation reported last week that over half of all public school students in the region are now living in low income households. Commenting on the report, John Norton, of the Teacher Leadership Network, writes that in the South, “the most important ‘export’ has become factory jobs in textiles, furniture and other manufacturing”.

I’m challenged by how to teach my students about the complexities of making one’s living in this new economy. I struggle to find relevant readings and media to represent the scope of economic change in the past generation.

Just last week, I was talking with a colleague about my frustration with the reading materials available for our courses. Many of our students come from families that have been set economically adrift in a single generation. The parents of many of our students worked in manufacturing, in natural resources, in small businesses that couldn’t compete with the now ubiquitous Big Box stores. Many will teach in semi-rural and small town school districts in which privileged children living in new developments built on failed farmland will ( at least until rising property values drive out even moderate income families) attend school alongside the children of the milk truck drivers and convenience store clerks who haven’t seen black ink in the ledger book for the past 5 years and are weeks away from bankruptcy.

And in the rural South, children of parents who were laid off from the mill after decades of back-breaking work attend school with the children of the immigrants working in the poultry plants and in decaying orchards. There is virtually no chance that new family-wage jobs will be available to these kids if they do graduate from high school. The more privileged kids are in private schools down the street.

Yet the readings with which I might teach about critical perspectives on schooling are almost all focused on urban schools.

There are, of course, common challenges in teaching kids without health care or hope, regardless of where they live.

But too few texts in education represent the many faces of childhood poverty. Too few explain that many of the children living on farms, in decaying small towns, in the inner ring suburbs in our classrooms will be simply puzzled by teachers’ promises that doing well in school will shield them from the fate of their parents. Too few texts represent the lives of children who live just beyond the reach of the travel budgets of research grants, whose parents and grandparents thought that they were playing by the rules but now can no longer feed their families.

How do we prepare teachers for work in small towns, in rural areas, in the small cities built around “the mills”, in places in which the residents themselves are still trying to understand what happened to their dreams, where schools may well seem to simply be part of “the system” that betrayed them beyond measure? How do we trouble teachers’ understandings of the place of schooling in these new economic times?

2 thoughts on “Poverty an Hour’s Drive From Campus

  1. John Norton November 9, 2007 / 9:31 am

    Jane… thanks for linking to the Teacher Leaders Network blog entry on the rise of school poverty in the South. Your comments are so on-target. A product of rural schools, I now live in an Appalachian county that perfectly fits your description…”children of parents who were laid off from the mill after decades of back-breaking work attend school with the children of the immigrants working in the poultry plants and in decaying orchards.”

    Where are the solutions for these small communities, which I love? My high speed Internet connection makes it possible for me to survive here. Is there some hope — with the right educational opportunities and investments — of creating a 21st C economic survival strategy beyond “grow up and leave town”?

    See the segment subtitled “West Blocton Elementary” in this story I wrote from Alabama…



  2. janevangalen November 9, 2007 / 3:14 pm

    John, Thanks for coming over to comment. I loved your article — have been looking for resources exactly like this and have posted it to my preservice tech class wiki for my students to read.

    I wonder about the possibilities of the internet for making at least some work to become independent of geography. I’ve read of a tailor in a small village in England who has built his business entirely through the web.

    I live in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the small towns within a 3 hour drive of the major cities have become “Colonized” by telecommuters who can do there work while living just about anywhere.

    But my sense is that these are mostly highly skilled workers.

    But can we imagine other forms of work that could similarly be done from distant places?

    I started my teaching career in a rural school in Southern Appalachia. There was no flat land for building factories, no tillable farm land, few choices for those who became educated except to leave.

    Does broadband change this? How do we get the resources to schools like West Brocton? Why are we even still asking those questions?


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