Source: Sherman Publications

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Beating the odds:
Oakwood overcomes obstacles of poverty

by Susan Bromley

December 11, 2013

Brandon Twp.- Last school year, more than half of all students at Oakwood Elementary, 55 percent, were eligible for free or reduced price school meals.

Families must fall below a certain amount of household income to qualify for their children to receive free breakfast and lunch at school, and such a qualification is an indicator of poverty. Schools with a high number of low-income students typically struggle to meet achievement benchmarks set by the state, but Oakwood is beating the odds.

This fall, the Michigan Department of Education recognized Oakwood as a "Rewards School."

"When you consider the demographics of Oakwood, which includes the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, the expectation is that our accountability score would be substantially lower than it is," said Oakwood Principal Kristy Spann.

As she speaks, she shows a graph that includes schools throughout Oakland County. At the top corner of the graph are schools in wealthier districts like Bloomfield and Birmingham. The bottom corner of the graph shows schools in poorer districts, including Pontiac. The graph shows a correlation between academic achievement and economic prosperity. As economic fortunes decrease, so does achievement. However, on the graph, Oakwood stands near the top at the 86th percentile in achievement, despite being halfway across the graph for having 55 percent of students eligible for free and reduced meals.

"Oakwood is an outlier, it stands out from the pack in a positive way," said Spann.

Because Oakwood made annual yearly progress and has been identified as "beating the odds," as proven by various measures including test scores, the state honored the school as "highly progressing."

Accomplishing this feat is no small task. Those in lower income brackets tend to fare worse academically than those in higher income brackets, Spann noted. Just because someone lives in poverty does not mean they can't achieve, but they will have more obstacles to overcome.

"Typically kids from lower income homes have parents who are less educated, with lower vocabularies, that tend to read less," she explained. "Parents may work multiple jobs, they're more tired, the food is lower quality, the stress level is higher. They need to tend to everything else that is falling apart."

Spann pulls from a bookcase in her office a copy of "A Framework for Understanding Poverty," by Ruby Payne. The book is one that the Oakwood staff read a few years ago, motivated to learn more to help the economically disadvantaged students at the school. The book made a recent appearance at a school board meeting as other teachers in the district, including those at Harvey Swanson, have also been reading it.

"It's helpful to all of us because it builds a knowledge base and skill set," said Spann. "Most teachers are considered middle income earners. Most don't come with an understanding of poverty and this helps us with understanding students and their families. We've had families with their gas turned off, no stove or heat. When (impoverished families) hit a stumbling block, everything crashes, because it's all so precarious."

Students from these families may come to school stressed, tired and hungry, she continued, making it difficult to concentrate on learning. These children don't have the opportunity for swim lessons or extracurricular activities.

Elizabeth (not her real name) knows what it is like to struggle. In 2007, her then husband's salary was cut in half and they lost their home. Three years later, the couple divorced. Elizabeth has a bachelor's degree, but was a stay-at-home mother to four children. Her oldest is now 11, and the youngest is a kindergartener at Oakwood.

Her parents have assisted her in getting a house. She receives child support, the majority of which goes to pay the mortgage. She receives $450 per month in state aid to feed the children and herself. She has no other income. Every month, she wonders how she will put gas in the car and how she is going to keep the heat and electricity on.

Elizabeth is in situational poverty as opposed to generational poverty. She had money before job changes and divorce changed her circumstances. Now she has the stress of living day-to-day with limited financial resources.

"When you're so down about how you will pay for this, how am I going to do this, it's mentally exhausting and can easily turn to depression," she noted. "It's the day-to-day stress of how to pay utilities and my children want to play sports and there is no money, and then you come up to Christmas. Right now the bathroom sink doesn't work and I don't know how to fix it. It's little things like that."

Elizabeth is hoping to get a full-time job again by the time her youngest child starts first grade next year. She is grateful to have family for her support system, as well as the staff of Oakwood. Her children, who have all attended Oakwood, did well at the school thanks to a caring staff, she said, that is very attuned to what is going on in students' home lives. She added that Spann also is knowledgeable about what agencies can help families in need.

"She is a huge resource for where to go for what type of assistance," said Elizabeth.

Spann attributes Oakwood's success to the staff working together to craft a vision and revisiting it every year. Teachers focus on the emotional and physical safety of students to create an environment conducive to learning and they take the "it takes a village to raise a child" mentality to heart.

"In this building you are looking out for 290 kids who aren't in your class as well as the 25 who are," she said. "We don't discriminate by class, economic status, color, whether a student is gifted or talented. We meet them all where they are and help them grow from that point."

"It's really nice to have the hard work of staff and families affirmed," said Spann of Oakwood being recognized by the state. "We are affirmed that what we are doing makes a difference. Now we have to keep reaching beyond our grasp."