Focus on success, not circumstance

More than half of the students at Northwood Elementary School come from families living at or near the poverty level, which is why the school watches for any kids who need extra help.

Teachers routinely track how well students keep up in class and score on in-class tests and assignments. If students start to fall behind in math, language arts or another core class, a teacher or aide gives them extra help in that subject.

The Franklin school provides the extra help for all students, regardless of how much money their parents make, Principal Katie Crites said. But that extra assistance can be essential for students from

low-income families, who don’t always get opportunities to build and develop their math, language and other skills outside school, school staff members said.

School districts track the number of students who come from families living in poverty. Right now, four county school districts have at least one

elementary school where more than half the students live in or near the poverty line.

School districts measure that number based on the number of families who have signed up their children for the free and reduced-price lunch program. To qualify for a reduced-price meal, the annual income for a family of four cannot exceed $44,123. If the family of four has an annual income of $31,005 or less, the children qualify for a free meal.

This school year, about 37 percent of Johnson County’s roughly 25,600 students come from families whose income is low enough to qualify for the program. In Clark-Pleasant, Franklin and Greenwood schools, between 44 percent and 47 percent receive free and reduced-price meals this school year. In Edinburgh, the figure is 65 percent.

But the rate is much higher at specific schools.

At Break-O-Day Elementary School in Whiteland, 55 percent of the students come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for lunch assistance. Webb Elementary in Franklin has more than 60 percent. East Side Elementary in Edinburgh has 71 percent. At Northeast Elementary in Greenwood,

74 percent of students are enrolled in the program, which is the highest rate among all Johnson County schools.

Schools provide more than meals to the students enrolled in the program. Students from lower-income families don’t always have the same opportunities to practice vocabulary and other essential skills outside class, so teachers need to be prepared to provide extra help for students who need it.

“Children who are in poverty begin school with less exposure to those items that can help them grow socially, emotionally and academically,” Greenwood Superintendent Kent DeKoninck said.

Young children have chances to enlarge their vocabularies and practice talking whenever they’re in public. Trips to the zoo, a museum or even the mall expose them to words and sounds they don’t hear at home. But not all families can afford the admission or gas costs that come with those trips, Crites said.

“The more you’re talking and learning just increases that vocabulary and those processing skills,” she said.

Schools with high numbers of low-income students receive additional funding from the state and also can qualify for federal Title I dollars, which pay for programs to help educate students in or near poverty.

Northwood, where nearly 60 percent of the students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for lunch assistance, uses its Title I funding to pay for additional teachers and aides who work with students — not all of whom come from low-income families — who need extra help mastering math and language arts lessons. In recent years, the school’s students have earned some of the highest ISTEP and IREAD-3 scores in Johnson County.

For schools, identifying students who need help mastering math, language arts and other core lessons early so they can get additional help is essential, educators said. Typically, teachers and principals can use ISTEP scores and the scores on assignments and tests to tell how well students are keeping up.

DeKoninck wants Greenwood’s teachers, principals and other staff members to think more about challenges students from low-income families face.

Greenwood’s staff is in the middle of a series of cultural competency trainings, and DeKoninck wants that training to prompt teachers to think more about the mindsets of students from different backgrounds.

For example, if students come to school without finishing their homework, their teachers need to consider whether those students have problems or challenges at home that make it difficult for them to focus on their schoolwork. If a family recently lost its home or is having problems paying bills, the school district might be able to connect the family with local agencies that can help out.

That can make it easier for the student to focus on what’s happening in class at school, DeKoninck said.

“We need to understand what it’s like to be in their world,” he said.