In junior high, Kyerra King started struggling in math. In King’s classroom of over 30 students, the teacher couldn’t offer individual help for each student, and her family couldn’t afford tutoring.
She grew up in a low-income community, where it wasn’t uncommon for teenagers to work to assist their families, as she did. At 16, she started working to help her mom support the household, which included three younger siblings. Her grades began to slip as she took on more shifts and put school on the backburner.
Unlike many of her high school friends, King went to college, where she realized how much preparation she lacked compared to her more affluent peers, who had access to tutors and SAT prep courses.
“I worked really hard to get to where I am now,” King, 25, said. “But really, I didn’t work any harder than most of my friends. I just got lucky.”
A study conducted by Georgetown University think tank FutureEd found one-third of school districts nationwide have schools with concentrated poverty, meaning an area where the poverty rate is 40% or higher. A higher concentration of poverty — which disproportionally impacts communities of color — means fewer local tax dollars go to area schools, leaving students with outdated textbooks and more crowded classrooms, fewer technologies for adaptive learning and a lack of opportunities for tutoring and early-childhood education.
FutureEd researcher Nicole Katz found economically disadvantaged students have lower levels of academic achievement than their peers, a trend that has been consistent for the past 50 years.
According to the Indiana Department of Education, even the highest-achieving low-income students fare worse in school than their wealthier peers, and that begins in early elementary school.
Just 56% of low-income first grade students who were in the top quartile of their class were in the same position by the fifth grade, compared to 69% of higher income students.
It isn’t just a lack of resources within a school causing low-income students to fall behind. Poverty’s all-encompassing effects play a role in how children learn.
According to Indy Hunger Network, roughly 280,000 Hoosier children lack reliable access to food. Indy Hunger Network reports children who are hungry are more likely to repeat a grade in elementary school, to be hospitalized, experience developmental impairments in areas such as language or motor skills, have more social and behavioral problem, all of which impact their overall education.
While an inadequate education can lead to cyclical poverty via a lack of employment options — 23% percent of Americans living under the poverty line have no high school diploma, and 11% have a high school diploma or an equivalent — the “school-to-prison pipeline” makes it difficult for disadvantaged students to stay out of the criminal justice system.
The ”pipeline” describes a system where students from marginalized and low-income backgrounds disproportionately become incarcerated as young adults. In many cases, part of the problem is schools focus on preparing every student for college, despite that not being the right — or realistic — choice for every student. In addition, behavioral issues can lead to labeling a student, which follows the student throughout their education career.
Breanca Merritt, chief health equity officer for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said the pipeline and surrounding issues have to be addressed well before children start thinking about college.
“Decades of research show the earlier you start kids on a particular path, the more likely it is that they go to college,” Merritt said. “We need to have conversations about alternatives, though. … Our current infrastructure doesn’t allow kids on the pipeline to get off that track.”
A study from the Brookings Institution found low-income students are suspended more often and for longer periods than more affluent students. For Black children, these disparities start in preschool. A Columbia University study found 48% of preschool students who are suspended more than once are Black. The study found Black and low-income children are typically disciplined more severely than their peers, typically for “disrespectful” behavior.
These suspensions can lead to disengagement and expulsion, which gives children more idle time for high-risk and criminal activities and lack of job opportunities.
A 2018 Bureau of Justice study found 80% of men in state or federal prisons around the country do not have a high school diploma.
“When poor kids never really get a chance, they have to do what they feel like they gotta do to survive,” King said.
Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.