It can be hard enough to teach a room full of wiggly elementary school students. But if those kids come to school without proper school supplies, if they haven't had the benefit of preschool or been exposed to books in the home, or if they can't read English, their path to achievement is a lot steeper.
When one thinks of Elmhurst District 205—or Elmhurst in general—poverty is not something that comes to mind. But some sobering statistics shared at Tuesday's District 205 School Board meeting indicate a dramatic increase at Conrad Fischer School of students living in poverty.
In the last year, out of Fischer's nearly 500 students, the number of those living in poverty increased from 39 percent to 57 percent of the student population. Five years ago, it was 19 percent.
The district determines the number of students living in poverty by looking at the number of students in the free or reduced lunch program. And while Fischer clearly has the largest population of poverty-level families in the district, Superintendent David Pruneau pointed out that poverty is spreading.
"Poverty is increasing pretty dramatically districtwide, up to 13.5 percent and moving forward," he said. "We have a lot of students, a lot of parents in need."
According to the 2012-13 budget approved by School Board members Tuesday, District 205 receives about $430,000 in Title I funds for low-income students at Fischer and Churchville Middle School, the district's only Title I-eligible schools.
Title I was first developed as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The legislation aims to narrow the achievement gap by allowing all students, regardless of income, the same shot at a quality education. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act reauthorizes the ESEA.
Currently, Title I funds can be spent only on those children specifically targeted as living in poverty. But since Fischer has far surpassed the Act's threshold of 40 percent of its student population in poverty, the district can petition to use Title I funds for all students attending the school.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Charles Johns told the School Board that if the schoolwide model is approved, all students at Fischer will benefit.
"When you get to a critical mass of poverty in a school, even students who are not from an impoverished background still need support," he said. "The whole school has a degree of need."
The federal government doesn't exactly make it easy to convert from a targeted model to a schoolwide model, and Fischer Principal Jane Bailey and her staff have been hard at work for a year gathering data to outline the learning needs of students, as well as a plan of action.
The plan leans heavily on parent participation, a broad range of academic interventions and infusion of technology—all things that already are being implemented at Fischer.
The first step to conversion to a schoolwide model is board approval, Johns said, and the board unanimously approved the measure Tuesday. Board member Maria Hirsch took the opportunity to point out the special challenges teachers at Fischer face.
The majority of students in District 205 have support from home and extended family, strong language and conversational skills, early childhood education and a "solid base" from which they are starting their education—"so many things many of us take for granted," she said.
But the majority of students at Fischer come from a different environment, she said.
"Not only are we asking Fischer staff to help (students) meet typical growth that is expected of our high-achieving school district … we also are asking them to make up for and fill in the gaps of these students that don't have that foundation coming to us," she said. "Not only do we have a building where almost 60 percent of the students come from a background that is not as solid as the rest of our buildings, but we also are holding (teachers) to very high expectations."
Fischer staff has been committed to academic intervention. They have provided free school supplies and backpacks to students, free physicals to families and a strong summer school program. School Board member John McDonough was the board's liaison to Fischer last year.
"I was invited to witness all the school planning," he said. "I saw a group of passionate professionals, really engaged people who are there with a calling to give that little bit extra the school might need. It was a tribute to the leadership of Jane Bailey and all the teachers there, and the community members who were participating—courageous, active individuals.
"It was really a great experience. I left the session moved that day."