Poverty’s Growing Role in Suburban Schools

In education policy circles, millions of words are written and millions of dollars spent seeking to address the educational challenges associated with schools in low-income urban areas.  Few words or dollars are promised to confront the fact that these same challenges are shifting outside of city borders.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the largest growth in rate of poverty in the United States in 2012 was in non-metropolitan areas.  While the poverty rate in urban areas is generally hugging the national average, the rate outside of cities is now climbing away from the mean.

Cities struggling to overcome the hurdles correlated with low-income areas have years of experience tailoring services and programs to meet the needs of citizens.  In non-metro areas, swift demographic shifts have left community leaders at the starting blocks in creating needed social services.

In Sauk Village, a compact but densely populated community south of Chicago, College of Education alumna Aisha El-Amin (photo, right) and Jeremiah Johnson, director of Special Education for Community Consolidated School District 168 are building a platform of community resources for the rapidly growing low-income population of the village.  Using a Dean’s Community Engagement Grant, the district hosted a community family fest in October 2013 to bring together behavioral health care service providers, medical providers, high school and college representatives, after-school and Head Start program offerings and other community resources.

“Because of the issues of acculturation and changing demographics, we have to be a step ahead and realize what the needs are and be prepared to meet those needs,” Johnson said. “Many kids in our community say, ‘I’ve never been on a college campus and I’ve never considered college as an option because I didn’t know I can do it.’”

With the advent of Common Core state standards and a growing nationwide emphasis on schools providing college readiness, Johnson says youth in his community need exposure to what college can mean to their future and for parents to gain access to tools to further their child’s education.  Conceptually, Johnson says access to resources boosts parents’ ability to support their own families.

Parents expressed support for the event being free of cost, at a convenient location and providing exposure to new resources.

“I had a parent come up to me and say, ‘You know, you talked to my son about college, and we have now made a breakthrough,’” said El-Amin, PhD Policy Studies in Urban Education ’11 and content manager with the Chicago Teacher Pipeline Project at the College of Education. “It allowed another voice for that family.”

Moving forward, Johnson and El-Amin aim to build off the success of the first community family fest.  El-Amin, who serves on the district school board, says she wants to bring together educational providers from birth through college, uniting day care providers, early childhood educators, primary, middle and high school educators with college leaders to provide a continuum of supports and resources throughout the childhood lifespan.  Both say the district and the village need to continually consider how to provide better resource access for parents.

“Tears were brought to my eyes when we opened the doors and we were flooded with parents,” El-Amin said. “It says something enormous; you knew you just hit something, feeding the community something that they need.”