EDITORIAL: Break the cycle of poverty

York Dispatch

The recently released results of a national survey of teachers reinforces what many have been saying for decades about the state of education in York City:

Any plan to improve the district's poor academic performance has to address a system that concentrates poverty in York County's seat — which automatically puts the students and schools at a disadvantage.

Eighty-eight percent of the teachers surveyed for the Communities in Schools poll said poverty was the No. 1 impediment to learning.

That was followed by major disruptive behavior, chronic absenteeism and poor student health — issues we suggest are directly linked to poverty.

Dan Fuller, vice president of legislative relations for Communities in Schools, said teachers often are unfairly blamed for failing students.

But "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," he said. "If you're hungry, you don't care about math."

Urban policy expert David Rusk came to the same conclusion nearly 20 years ago when he was commissioned to diagnose York City's ills and suggest solutions.

He found a town where white flight, crumbling infrastructure and housing stock, spiraling taxes and a concentration of tax-exempt and social service agencies created dangerous concentrations of poverty.

Rusk's suggested solution involved an intense effort to create affordable housing in mixed-income developments throughout the county.

It would disperse concentrated poverty in York City, which would alleviate the school district's problems.

That was in 1996, and little has been done since then to act on Rusk's advice.

As result, according to Maggie Mafnas, a social-studies teacher at William Penn Senior High School, "in York City we struggle with the academic and behavioral effects of generational poverty. Not all students see that education can be a vehicle for a better life or even the possibilities of a better life."

That cycle has to be broken.

While extending the school day is a great idea, that recently announced move should be just part of a much broader approach to education reform.

We can't expect educators to teach and solve society's ills at the same time — although some teachers do make valiant attempts at both.

Policy-makers need to acknowledge poverty's role in failing schools and finally come up with a plan to address it.