Let’s move beyond our poverty stereotypes

I work downtown at the SUNY Brockport Metro Center and just got back to my office with a sandwich from a local establishment. My server looked tired. She told me she was taking care of a sick relative’s children and her own child while continuing to work both her jobs. She figured she had gotten about 9 hours of sleep the past three nights. She is working, but poor and she got me thinking of how she would be characterized by some if she missed a teacher’s conference or school event. Would she be accused of not caring about her kids or their education?

It is challenging for us to consider our biases and stereotypes associated with complex issues like poverty and education but all of us stereotype. And make no mistake, stereotypes run both ways-city to suburbs and suburbs to city: The east side is rich. The west side is working class. The city is poor.

These are generalities (perhaps a softer word for stereotypes, because language does matter.). But as we strive as a region to provide more equitable schools (not equal – that language thing again) it may be helpful to address some sterotypes associated with poor children that may surprise.

Yes the Rochester City School District is the poorest in our region with almost 84 percent of children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch. And Pittsford , Brighton, Penfield and Victor all have 10 percent or fewer children in this category. But districts like Lyons, Mt. Morris, and Bath all have higher than 50 percent poverty rates. Indeed the majority of the region’s poor people (59 percent) live outside the city.

You are right if you believe that African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be poor than whites. In our region the poverty rate for blacks is 34 percent and for Hispanics it is 33 percent. The rate for whites is 10 percent.  So if you think of a poor student as being a black kid from the city you are not wrong.

But back to my lunch server. As a city mom she is obviously hard working and cares about her kid and her relatives’ kids. But what are the chances of her making it to a parent teacher conference or school events? I often hear that the problems of urban education can be solved if the parents just took more responsibility. You know the problems—fights at the bus station, the no-shows at school open houses, and the parents who don’t sign up to check their kids grades daily on the school website. The popular narrative is that these parents don’t care as much as we do.

This narrative may be the most damaging stereotype of all when it comes to building broad support for countywide magnet schools that strive for a mix of 60 percent middle class kids with 40 percent poor students.

Parents and children living in poverty, like my sandwich-making friend, experience class-specific barriers associated with participating in schools. They often work multiple jobs (with no vacation time), struggle with transportation, and have no one to watch their kids even if they wanted to participate in the school community.

So while it is true that low-income parents visit their school less often than middle class parents, it is also true that they are active at home—making their kids do homework, limiting TV time and reading to them. And anecdotally I have found this to be true. As a principal I made multiple calls to poor and working class parents asking them to come in to talk about their kids. I often made those calls to their places of work. And they always told me that if they came in they would lose wages or in some cases be fired. But they all cared and asked me what they could do.

Other stereotypes assume the poor are substance abusers, poor communicators and ineffective parents. But they too have been discounted by the research.

As middle class parents we provide our kids with vacations, art and sports camps, rides to everywhere and time spent together. We have our own stereotypes: soccer moms, deadbeat dads, uber parents, and the like. We sometimes bristle when someone puts us in that box. To move forward as a region we must also bristle at stereotyping the poor city kids and their parents who love them as much as we do our children.

Jeff Linn teaches educational administration at the state College at Brockport and he is a member of the GS4A leadership team.