On March 19th CASDA presented “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” a symposium to illuminate the challenges surrounding the increasingly prevalent issue of student poverty in suburban districts. The intersection of schools and urban poverty has been at the center of educational and progressive political dialog at least as far back as Johnson’s Great Society initiatives in the 1960s. Today, however, poverty is growing fastest in suburban communities, challenging educators and community leaders to discard stereotypical conceptions of disadvantaged students and develop a new understanding in order to provide quality education to all children.
“Confronting Suburban Poverty” aimed to start this difficult but necessary conversation. CASDA director Dr. James Butterworth opened the conference by offering a wealth of substantive background information. He highlighted the percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch as the primary statistical metric for identifying student poverty. Dr. Butterworth utilized maps and illustrations from the Cornell Applied Demographics department to clearly illustrate the considerable increase in student poverty in suburban districts. Dr. Butterworth also showed an insightful and compelling video piece from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program entitled “What is Suburban Poverty?” The video states that “the landscape of poverty in America has changed but the way we think about it hasn’t.” Dr. Butterworth’s presentation made clear, in no uncertain terms, that we must “change the way we think about it.”
A panel discussion brought together Capital Region educators with diverse backgrounds to speak about their experiences with students confronting poverty. Dr. Marie Wiles, Superintendent of Guilderland Central School District, Marybeth Tedisco, Prinicpal of Roessleville Elementary in South Colonie, Thomas Fyvie, Assistant Principal at Scotia-Glenville High School, Sari Van Sleet, School Counselor in North Colonie and Julie Burnetter, a teacher at Shatekon Elementary in Shenendehowa shared both powerful insights and compelling personal reflections. Dr. Marie Wiles leads a district that is widely considered one of the more affluent in the region. The Guilderland Central School District has seen its free and reduced lunch population grow from five percent district wide in the ’07-’08 school year to over fifteen percent at present. Dr Wiles articulated a central problem surrounding poverty in suburban districts; she states “economically challenged kids have other challenges as well, we have to weigh all of these circumstances – we don’t talk about the poverty too much.” Dr. Wiles clearly recognizes the multiple, complex obstacles facing disadvantaged students, but her statement that school leaders “don’t talk about the poverty too much” is quite revealing. It is much easier to discuss symptoms that are manifested in the classroom such as incomplete or missing homework, poor attention and behavioral problems than it is to address the structural roots of poverty.
“Confronting Suburban Poverty” aimed to serve as a catalyst, provoking thoughtful and productive conversation about student poverty in the suburbs. The conference offered both sobering empirical data outlining trends that fly in the face of long held stereotypes and moving personal experiences of individual educators as they struggled to help students in need. The information and emotion that drove the conference is certain to ignite a discourse that enables educators to help students most in need.