Q&A: New book explores how educators can begin to bridge the 'opportunity gap' poverty creates
Nearly a quarter of American children are growing up in poverty — and the percentage is much higher in some communities.
Peoria Public Schools board member Dr. Anni Reinking and colleague Dr. Theresa Bouley co-wrote "The Economic and Opportunity Gap" about how poverty impacts students, and how educators can better work with those populations.
Below is a partial transcript of Tim Shelley's conversation with Reinking and Bouley, edited for clarity and length.
TIM SHELLEY: What do we know about you know how the poverty is impact on students in the classroom?
ANNI REINKING: One of the biggest things that I wanted to bring into this book is the idea of shaming. And that really impacts students. So monetary shaming, financial shaming, lunch shaming, behavior shaming.
Poverty is a type of trauma. And so shaming does really come into the classroom environment, through teachers or school districts asking for money all the time, and then kind of calling students out who aren't able to pay for field trips or for assignment notebooks or those types of things.
And then lunch shaming is also pretty prevalent. And it is essentially, if a student can't pay for their lunch, then they're given kind of like the bread and butter and milk. Or if students have free and reduced lunch there. In many school districts, they are marked, so they have a stamp on their hand, or they have a different color, lunch card or something like that, that indicates to everyone else that they are in poverty. And then that can really be a sense of shame. And it can be something that really impacts the student's self esteem and self confidence. So that's a big part that I think how it influences the classroom.
THERESA BOULEY: In the title of the book, we call it the opportunity gap. And poverty has a great impact on children from toddlerhood, from the preschool years, we can see that the opportunity gap has already started. We can look at children's vocabulary and language. And we can see that children who live in more affluent families and homes have more opportunities. And those opportunities turned in turn into more advanced language. And that language sets them up and helps them to be better prepared for kindergarten. Students living in families that are less affluent come to kindergarten with less experiences and less opportunity. So we call that the opportunity gap.
So across the board, it impacts the students in terms of, you know, maybe they don't have preschool experiences. They don't have the social emotional development or the academic skills that some students of more affluent homes would have if they had gone to preschool before going to kindergarten, and things like that. And one of the things I want it to take up, pick up where Ani left off, around shame. I think one thing that we need to remember is that a lot of the shaming that she just discussed is around schoolwide policies. Right? So it's not necessarily what you know what teachers are always doing in their classroom.
At school, policies like discipline policies and school lunch policies and attendance policies, like having awards for students who have perfect attendance when, you know, a student has a lot of reasons why they're having a hard time getting to school, if they're living in less affluent homes. So these are all, you know, microaggressions and negative experiences that students of poverty have in schools.
For an educator or school district administrator, somebody in that realm, picking up this book and reading it, I would assume one thing you want them to take away from it is a poverty affects children. Here's a little bit about how it does. But would you hope they take a certain action? What are some action steps you would hope they would take after reading this book and understanding this a little better?
ANNI REINKING: I think picking up on the attendance policy is a big one. Students who live in poverty. A lot, many students, regardless of if they live in poverty or not, can't have perfect attendance. But research shows that it impacts students living in poverty, kind of at a higher extent. Also policies around behavior and addressing challenging behaviors. If you're hungry, your brain is in survival mode, and your brain is not ready to calm your body down and to quote behave correctly, or however the teacher wants you to behave. So I think really, we imagining policies around attendance policies around lunch.
That and policies around money, financial, the financial burdens of what schools are asking. Right before I wrote this book, I did some research on how much money schools are asking on a monthly basis that don't have to do with school fees. And it's a lot of money that schools are constantly asking for, that you as parents, you feel guilty if you don't, you know, book fairs and school pictures and the assignment notebook, and the field trips, and the parties. And every month, there's something else. And if you are working on a very fixed income, those extras can be very, very hard to to figure out how to do that.
And so I think administrators just taking that into consideration. One of the big things that Teresa brought into this book is all about lesson plans, and really bringing the idea of how you can implement this at the classroom level.
THERESA BOULEY: At the classroom level, I think one of the things that we want educators to do is one see themselves as advocates for school wide changes in policies. As Anni just said, it's so important to not just be concerned with what's happening in our classroom, but how can we call attention? This is all about awareness. It's about self-awareness. And our administrators or superintendents, people who make the school policies may not be aware of the impact that they're having on students. And I think that I want my future teachers and our in service teachers to be able to take a role in helping, to call that to their attention.