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Teachers: Poverty, behavior among barriers to learning

ERIN JAMES
YorkDispatch

A recently released survey of educators nationwide found 88 percent of teachers citing poverty as a major barrier to learning.

The vast majority of 700 teachers polled also identified disruptive behavior, chronic absenteeism and poor student health as significant impediments to education — leading the survey's generator to conclude social issues and not necessarily school dysfunction are largely to blame for low-achieving schools.

The poll was commissioned by Communities in Schools, a nationwide nonprofit that works to connect schools and students with local resources, and conducted in May by Public Opinion Strategies with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.

Last year, several community groups donated more than $800,000 to fund five Communities in Schools coordinators for three years in the York City School District.

The nonprofit claims the recent survey "is among the largest and most in-depth examination of issues facing teachers, from the teacher viewpoint."

Placing blame: There are two main takeaways from the survey, said Dan Fuller, vice president of legislative relations for Communities in Schools.

First, he said, teachers concur that poverty is a huge barrier to education.

Second, Fuller said, teachers have become easy targets for people looking to place blame for failing schools.

"Everybody's quick to blame the teachers," Fuller said. "The reality is these kids come to school with a whole set of problems, and the best teacher in the world can't reach them until they're addressed. If you're hungry, you don't care about math."

More than 90 percent of teachers who responded said they've spent their own money on supplies.

More than half said they've spent their own money to feed students or help a student or their family get through a crisis.

Almost half said they've helped a student get new clothing or footwear. Nearly 30 percent said they've arranged for a student to receive medical attention.

Fuller said Communities in Schools conducted the survey to collect teachers' perspectives on fundamental education problems.

"We said, 'You know what? Teachers are there, and they see this stuff firsthand. What do they think are the biggest problems?'" he said.

'Everybody's problem': Teachers also reported spending about 20 percent of their time helping students with issues beyond the classroom.

"That's one day a week," Fuller said. "You're talking four days a month. It starts to really add up."

And that makes poverty "everybody's problem," he said.

"The highest-achieving kid in the classroom is not getting the education they deserve. Neither is the lowest when the teacher is focusing on things that a teacher shouldn't have to focus on," Fuller said.

Politicians and education leaders need to focus on making sure kids have their basic needs met before they enter the classroom, he said.

"Stop looking in the school building and look at where the kids are coming from. If we're serious about fixing education, we need to address poverty," Fuller said. "These kids are open and ready to learn. It's not that they can't handle the academics. It's that they can't get to the point of focusing on the academics."

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.