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Commentary: Let’s not perpetuate the cycle of poverty

Guest contributor | March 11, 2015

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Passport parent's education portalBy Misti Kemmer

I grew up around drugs and alcohol.  At nine years old, I manned the kegs at weekend barbecues for my aunts and uncles where I was surrounded by a cloud of marijuana smoke.  But even at that early age, I knew that I wanted something more.  I was determined to be the first person in my family to attend college.

I applied to several California universities and was denied at every single one. There were requirements that I didn’t know about, like Advanced Placement courses and minimum SAT scores. When I told my family that I wanted to enroll in a community college, it was suggested that I apply to beauty school to save me the trouble. I followed my family’s tradition and became a teenage mom instead.

Eventually, I made it to a major university in California where I learned about something called the cycle of poverty. I understood for the first time that I had been part of a cycle that was incredibly hard to break, but had managed to struggle through. I made the decision then to become a teacher in urban schools, in the poorest areas, so that kids who grew up like me would know a different way. And I wanted to teach in “Title I” schools, because that’s where kids with stories like mine go to school.

When I read that Title I funds under the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act might be funneled away from areas like the one where I teach in south Los Angeles, I was appalled. In fact, LA Unified would experience the largest reduction in Title I funding, losing $80.6 million dollars, for a cut of 23.8 percent under a bill the U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on later this month. If it becomes law, it could lead to significant teacher layoffs, and up to 1,000 LAUSD teachers could lose their jobs. These layoffs most often disproportionately affect children in the poorest neighborhoods, like my students who attend an urban Los Angeles school.

Children in schools like mine fall directly under the criteria to receive Title I funds. These are the kids from homes with drug and alcohol abuse. These are kids who live in severe poverty — one child told me that his home has dirt floors….dirt floors! They are the kids like my own fourth graders, who hear gun shots and see gang violence and have, on a regular basis, homeless people wander into their yard.

Title I funds allow my school to target kids like these to address their academic needs, many of which stem from horrific issues at home and in the community. These funds allow students in foster care to have someone on staff that monitors progress and makes sure they stay on track. Title I funds pay for my Teacher’s Aide, who gives precious hours a week working with my most struggling students. It pays for our school to have psychologists and counselors to work directly with children whose emotional traumas often overshadow the day-to-day lessons they are expected to learn.

Title I funds allow us to find out which students are struggling to meet academic benchmarks so we can devote extra time to helping those kids catch up to their peers. And they allow us to tailor our professional development to train our staff on how to make our lessons relevant to a child who could care less about simplifying fractions when there is little food at home.

If the new ESEA passes as it is currently written, we will lose much of the money that allows us to help students overcome the cycle of poverty. We should not be endorsing something that takes away support from the children who need it the most. I chose a career in one of the toughest neighborhoods to help kids see that there is another way; no child should have to face the roadblocks I did from lack of support. Schools are a means to achieving an educated society. We should not subject a generation of kids to staying in a cycle they are never given an opportunity to break.

Misti Kemmer is a 4th grade advanced studies/GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and has served as Title I coordinator.  She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.

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