Schools try to aid disadvantaged children, but pressure to help the family often trumps an education
Eventually, it all became too much for Jonathan Cole -- the time missed from school to take care of his siblings; the repeated moves to new schools; the realization that he was getting further and further behind his classmates.
So, he took the path that many children bearing the burden of poverty take: He dropped out of school.
The oldest of nine children of "working poor" parents, Jonathan, 16, often was called on to stay home from school and take care of his younger siblings. He was torn away from teachers and friends over and over as he bounced from schools in Holton, Hesperia, Reeths-Puffer and Whitehall.
"When I get older, I'm going to make sure my family's not going to struggle like that," said Jonathan, who's hoping to earn his high school diploma through adult education.
His story is one that's all too familiar to educators who find themselves battling the effects of poverty and Michigan's faltering economy. As is often the case with social injustice, the youngest citizens suffer the most.
Half of all schoolchildren in Muskegon County qualify for free or reduced lunches -- more than 40 percent of them getting lunches for free. In 2004, the last year for which a number is available, 9,782 children in the county were living in poverty -- a 34 percent increase since 2000, according to the Kids Count in Michigan 2007 Data Book.
Undoubtedly, those numbers have grown over the last four years as more area service agencies report increased needs in everything from food stamps to housing. In March, 16,775 homes in Muskegon County were receiving food stamps, up 52 percent since 2004.
For many children in poverty, their biggest safety net is their school. It is there where they find stability, regular nutritious meals, warm surroundings and caring teachers.
But schools also can pose the biggest challenges for poor children like Jonathan Cole as they grow older. Schoolwork gets tougher and the amount of homework grows exponentially -- a hardship for students whose parents can't help figure out algebra problems either because they're working or because their own education is lacking.
For Jonathan, friends became the source of help on homework.
But there are other pressures -- namely, social ones -- for teens in school. Sometimes it's just easier to stay home from school if your clothes are filthy because your parents couldn't afford to get to the Laundromat, or if you don't even know where they are because you've moved around so much. It becomes increasingly difficult to hide the fact you have fallen so far behind in your studies.
In this backdrop of growing poverty and family hardships, schools are facing greater pressures to make sure "no child is left behind." Numerous studies have proven children in poverty have greater struggles with achievement -- Jonathan's story explains many of the reasons why -- yet schools are required to improve achievement or face sanctions. The sanctions put even more financial pressure on schools suffering from the effects of Michigan's poor economy.
The largest source of financial support for schools is the state sales tax. It doesn't take a working knowledge of algebra to realize that when the working people in Michigan are struggling, they aren't going to buy as much. And hence, sales tax revenues drop.
As a result, schools have been forced to cut services that could help struggling students. Classes are getting bigger, counselors are being eliminated and after-school opportunities are dwindling.
Of course, education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Get a good education, students are told, and anything's possible. Stay in school, study hard and you, too, can be successful.
"Those speeches sound good," said Don Jones, a Muskegon Public Schools special advocate for at-risk students. "But they don't sound so good when you're hungry."
Poverty and achievement
Stacy Cole worries. She worries about the effects of poverty on her nine children. The economy is "hurting everybody all over," she said.
"Since we have a bigger family, it's even harder."
Try finding a landlord who wants to rent to a family of 11. It's not easy, and so moving around a lot is necessary.
And yet, somehow, they go ignored.