Aspirations have to be fed. Academic achievement must be supported.

Sadly, aspirations can be fleeting and achievement can be illusive when people live in the shadow of poverty. Truly deep, lasting, generational poverty.

Census Tract 204 in Lewiston’s Longley neighborhood is the poorest in Maine, home to 2,721 people. Of those, 835 are children. Of those, 297 are between the ages of 1 and 4. Only 10% of the residents there worked full-time last year. Sixty-nine percent are unemployed.

Neighboring Tract 201 is tied for third poorest in Maine.

These are neighborhoods that have, historically and over generations, been deeply poor. We don’t expect to see much change when the current census is completed, and it may very well be worse as the count will be influenced by circumstances of families living with the burden of all things coronavirus.

The slam of COVID-19 exaggerated the struggle for all poverty-stricken families, leaving parents without jobs and children without adequate food or the healthy social connections of school, making an already grim existence more so.

As spring turned to summer and now summer to fall, some of these issues have slightly eased as people slowly returned to work, schools worked relentlessly to provide food, and children re-started in-person classes on staggered schedules.

But the reality set bare by the closure of schools and loss of jobs is that the poorest children live the most fragile existence. They have the greatest need for public schooling, the least access to food, the least access to broadband and they live with adults who have the most vulnerable incomes.

As we’ve seen over the past many months, more affluent families are better able and better equipped to work from home, they have greater access to broadband, money to pay for private teaching, financial reserves to pay for food and housing.

It is a world apart from a family living week-to-week. Sometimes, day-to-day.

This is not news. It is the callous reality on this globe that a poor existence is an existence of struggle and pain.

And we, as humans, often rationalize that reality, clinging to the belief that one just need work hard to earn reward.

While that is true for many, when one starts out life in a place where food is often scarce and educational achievement is not always appreciated, that child — as intelligent and earnest as they may be — is not on equal footing and hard work will not always be enough.

What does starting out poor mean for children? It means constant struggle and ever-present challenge.

In cooperation with the Investigative Editing Corps, the Sun Journal analyzed the 2018-19 Maine Department of Education achievement data for more than 500 schools, controlled for each school’s proportion of economically disadvantaged students. What we found was that schools with the most economically disadvantaged children performed less well than their more affluent peers in English and math.

Starkly so.

At Longeley Elementary School, for example, where 96% of students were classified as economically disadvantaged, 33% of students should have met or exceeded state expectations —  also known as performing at the highest level — on the state’s math test. Instead, 20% did.

By comparison, at Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, where just 6% of the student population is considered economically disadvantaged, 57% of the students were expected to meet expectations in math. Instead, 75% did.

At McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston, where 68% percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, 46% of kids should have met or exceeded expectations on the state’s English language arts test. Instead, 19% did.

By comparison, Falmouth High School, where just 3% of students are considered economically disadvantaged, 77% of students were expected to meet expectations. The actual measure was 90%.

So, not only are more affluent schools out-performing students in poorer districts, the expectation right from the start that they will do so is much higher. We expect more of more affluent districts, less of poorer districts.

That’s inequity. Pure. And simple.

A shining spot in the state data?

Phillips Elementary School in Franklin County. The school has a population of 64% economically disadvantaged students, of whom 31% were expected to exceed expectations in math — but 56% of them did. That’s a true achievement for this tiny, rural school. Hat’s off to the administrators, teachers, parents and community supporters who are making this happen.

The experts we talked to said poor students — particularly those whose parents also were raised in poverty — don’t do as well in school or on standardized tests for a host of reasons: student aspirations are lower, parents may not be well educated or may work long hours and are unable to help with homework, families can’t afford enrichment activities or tutors, kids are focused on getting their basic needs met rather than learning. Researchers have found that low-income children enter kindergarten already behind their peers and low-income teenagers are less likely to graduate from high school.

“What we know is that students in poverty have more challenges. It’s not like they have less ability to learn; they have more obstacles in their way,” said Amy Johnson, co-director Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine.

What is particularly frightening about the data analysis is that the numbers are pre-COVID.

The break in education over the spring, and then over the summer, will most certainly have a lasting and negative impact on learning. For students who don’t have the support, and/or the technology to study at home in the current year, the impact will be far more detrimental.

Teachers know that. And it scares them.

It should scare everyone.

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