Numbers, numbers, numbers. Amid the bustling growth and strive for excellence in Humble ISD there are lots of numbers: how many new schools are needed, how many homes are being built, how many athletic champions or National Merit Scholars the district has.
Yet the district has lesser-known numbers: approximately 1,000 homeless kids in Humble ISD; 33 – the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch; 11 – the number of Title 1 schools; 84 – the percentage of the economically disadvantaged at just one Title 1 elementary school. These numbers are indicative of a problem not often heard or talked about – poverty.
Title I refers to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) federal program to provide financial assistance to schools with more than 40 percent of children from low-income families to help ensure that challenging state academic standards are met. The US Department of Education releases state-specific funding based on age 5-17 census poverty data, and numbers of foster and neglected children for all districts in each state, then the money goes to the district. Humble ISD has 11 Title 1 schools, and was awarded $3.2 million in funding for the 2016-7 school year. The district uses factors like the number of free and reduced lunches to distribute funds where they are most needed.
What do teachers face on a daily basis?
Every day, Title 1 Humble ISD teachers greet lovely, eager students, but they certainly face unique challenges that not every teacher faces on a daily basis. These families have high mobility rates; teachers have often never met or spoken with many of the students’ parents due to frequently changing phone numbers and frequent moves.
Brigitte Hokaj Sanson has been a teacher in Humble ISD for four years; she has only taught at Title 1 schools because she wanted to be where she could make the most difference and be that hug that students need during tough days. She teaches at Jack Fields Elementary, where the vast majority of students are economically disadvantaged; everyone gets a free breakfast, and a free and reduced-price lunch. School meals are frequently the only meals these students will have in a given day. The vast majority are English language learners with a limited English vocabulary. These students haven’t had the necessary pre-school or at-home preparation. Every teacher is ESL-certified or getting there.
It’s not uncommon for teachers in these 11 Title 1 schools to see a child come to school wearing shoes three sizes too big, because that is all the family has. The schools keep extra clothes because the children don’t have any extra clothing. Title 1 schools partner with the Houston Food Bank to offer Backpack Buddies, a program to discretely send food home on Friday so both the child and the family have enough to eat over the weekend.
Sanson explained that there is a huge stereotype about the parents of these children, and it leads to unfair judgments about the poor: “It’s not that parents don’t care or don’t want their children to succeed and get an education. It’s simply not feasible. They work two or three jobs. They have little or no background in formal education, and usually they just don’t have the ability or don’t know how to help their child.”
Sanson praises principal Karen Weeks for maximizing the Title 1 funds to stretch every dollar for student benefit, and also praises community efforts like those of Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital volunteers who read to the students. “I am hopeful that the situation will improve because I see the excitement for learning in the children’s faces and expressions,” Sanson said.
Macaire Davies is principal of North Belt Elementary, a school with more than 90 percent economically disadvantaged. Davies states that the language development is a serious issue; these students have no access to books and lack of nighttime reading. Davies' academic team cites interventional programs in bilingual and speech therapy that help remedy the problem, but says the vocabulary gap is still tremendous, citing a book entitled "The 32 Million Word Gap", a study of words spoken in homes at different socioeconomic levels, and why exposure to words as a child matters. In particular, Davies stresses the critical need for summer enrichment programs: "These kids are neck and neck academically with their peers during the school year, but they lose skills over the summer due to lack of enrichment." Backpack Buddies was started three years ago at North Belt by Kara Peck, Humble ISD Counselor of the Year; each for 37 weeks a year, 400 pounds of food is sent home. A team member noted having to explain to a student what a pineapple was because the child had never seen a picture, much less the real fruit. During the summer, North Belt serves meals, first to students, then to the public. The North Belt team explained that many of their parents lack certain aspects of a formal education, so help is there for the entire family: English classes, computer skills, personal finance lessons, and help with resumes and job applications are all part of the North Belt equation. "We are the first people they turn to, because we are providing a safe, secure environment for their child," Davies explains. Davies asks potential hires one question: "What lens are you looking through?" She hires teachers who understand impoverished children and the unique challenges that presents, who can work with the entire family, and who believe in the "every single student" mantra. "These parents often come to us with all kinds of things, particularly deeply personal issues, and we cannot betray their trust," Davies explains. "Our parents are loving and caring. We consistently have 600 people at evening events. We partner with them to meet every need we can as quickly as we can. We want them to see that the power of education can change their lives." Davies expressed a dire need for dental, vision and nurse wellness checks, and other things like dress clothes to wear to the annual Manners Luncheon. The North Belt counselor would love an additional at-risk counselor or dedicated social worker to help with the load.
What other help is available in the schools?
Tracey Boggan is with Kids Hope USA, an organization that mentors at-risk kids during the school day. “We provide stability and one person that child can consistently count on,” Boggan said. He cites the national crisis in reading in America, and says that many local church members volunteer to read with the kids. Boggan said that teachers are overwhelmed and they need help. His organization tries to work with kids as early as possible. “Past a certain age, it’s hard to get kids to care. They’ve been in survival mode so long, they’ve given up hope.” Boggan says the schools are in dire need of creation of after school programs like free basketball leagues. “These families can’t afford a paid league. They have no opportunity. If they do well in school all week, they deserve a fun program as a reward.” Boggan explains that for an hour a week, a community volunteer can change a kids’ plight. “Everybody needs someone – a positive relationship. All you have to do is show up.”
Community organizations like the Lake Houston Chapter of the National Charity League (NCL) help too; NCL donates school supplies and backpacks to Jack Fields Elementary every August, and organize the Lakeland Elementary 5th Grade Manners Banquet.
What does Humble ISD do to help?
Speaking for all school board trustees, Keith Lapeze stated that the board includes, as part of their yearly balanced budget, funding for lower teacher-student ratios, additional support staff, and some teacher stipends to assist the Title 1 schools. When available, surplus funds are spent on projects with the biggest Title 1 impact, like the recent allocation of $1 million to purchase laptops for every teacher in the Humble High School Title 1 school feeder pattern.
Jerri Monbaron, director of Humble ISD's Education Foundation, says that they try to meet every student need communicated to them by teachers and staff at the Title 1 schools. They've funded grants for basic needs such as clothes and eye exams, classroom supplies and technology. But Monbaron says the need is great and they're always looking for assistance from individuals and corporations regarding classroom donations (see humbleisdfoundation.org/schools). One area of particular need is funding for summer reading programs so that students retain and enhance their reading skills.
Dr. Fagen, Humble ISD superintendent, says that in her experience, Texas is ahead of many states regarding the way schools are funded to deal with poverty issues, but the need is still so great, and that there are unique aspects and needs of each of the 11 Title 1 schools in her district. She praises the devotion of the school staffs, and praises the students as deeply engaged kids who love their teachers. Fagen agreed that the biggest misconceptions are that these parents don’t value education, and myths about behavioral challenges. “You can have poverty without a behavioral challenge,” Fagen said. She stated that poverty without mobility is a huge challenge, and outlined needs like meal provision, basic health care, dental care and provision of eyeglasses. Fagen stated that because of the lack of early education, getting these students ready for the third grade state testing is a “heavy lift.”
How does Humble compare to Texas and the nation?
According to Bread For The World, an organization to end hunger in America, Texas ranks among the 10 hungriest states in the nation at 17.2% of households with significant issues of putting food on the table. According to census data, the Humble area ranks much worse than statewide averages. 2015 data indicates 28.7 percent of Humble residents with an income below the poverty level, compared with 21.1 percent statewide. Children below the poverty level are 24.6 percent in this area. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,250, and more than half a million Houstonians are affected. Imagine stretching $2,000 per month to cover rent, utilities, insurance, transportation, food, school clothes and supplies, and other necessities.
Are there awareness issues?
In general, the fast district growth gives a false sense that the economy is booming for everyone.
A teacher who wished to remain anonymous taught in Title 1 Humble ISD for many years before leaving in frustration to teach in another district. She experienced huge exasperation with board members who seemed oblivious to the rampant poverty in the district. When a trustee once asked what she needed, the trustee stared back at her in amazement when she said ‘a working pencil sharpener.’ “I just don’t think they get it. And why is it not spoken about?” she said. The teacher praised the efforts of Humble ISD’s Education Foundation, but cited difficulties with the curriculum, in that it is written by the district administrators who have no background knowledge or experience with the unique needs of children in poverty. She has always viewed Title 1 teaching as a “personal calling,” and is happier in a nearby district that has much more open conversation and idea exchange about poverty, and much more rigor, accountability, and expectation of success. They also have more competitive teacher stipends. “My kids are smart, and they’re bilingual, which is a huge advantage. I’m using everything I’ve ever learned to teach these kids.”
What is the state of poverty in the community at large?
Millie Garrison, director of Humble Area Assistance Ministries (HAAM), says that taking care of the impoverished is a “whole community effort” and says that providing basic assistance to these families is the first step. “It’s a hierarchy of needs. When you have no roof over your head or no food to put on the table, worries about your child’s education are not going to be your first priority”, Garrison said. She explained that these families are often one mishap or crisis away from going over the edge. If anything goes wrong, the family is instantly underwater – with no savings and nowhere to turn. HAAM sees it every day, and creates a care plan specific to each family’s needs. Most HAAM families are also Humble ISD families; they are the working poor and the whole family is affected by it. Garrison is immensely grateful for the thousands of volunteers, like the Atascocita High School soccer team that helped move office furniture prior to a flooring project. Garrison is also greatly appreciative of the community’s monetary donations, but says that money continues to be the greatest need. HAAM does apply for grants, but they have extremely specific guidelines regarding allocation of funds, and only go so far. HAAM feeds thousands of families and provided 1,700 backpacks as well as school supplies to Humble ISD students this school year. Garrison states that Humble ISD does an excellent job, and that they collaborate very well. “The schools will see issues and they refer the family to HAAM for help with how to get benefits,” Garrison explains. She also explained that keeping the family in their current home rather than moving is of utmost priority. There is no homeless shelter in the Lake Houston area, and HUD federal housing has an extremely long waiting list. There are family violence shelters, but domestic violence is not the issue with the majority of her HAAM families.
Cynthia Colbert, president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, says that Humble ISD is considered a middle-income area, despite one-third of students qualifying as economically disadvantaged. Colbert puts it into perspective: Humble ISD is nearly 10 percentage points higher than Harris County’s average of 27 percent, and drastically higher than the nation’s overall average of 21 percent. “The United States is among the world’s richest countries, and yet we hold the distinction of ranking second highest in child poverty,” Colbert said. “A family who lives on barely $2,000 a month is not in a position to contribute to our city’s economy and provide a better future for their children. They are not able to pay for their basic needs, invest in their careers, or plan for the children’s education. They are no longer living, but working to live.”
Colbert paints the portrait of childhood poverty like this: it’s wondering if you can make it through the weekend, surviving on ketchup packets and crackers, until the next school-provided lunch. It’s not having a pencil at home to do your assignment. It’s being teased because your pants are too short or you use rubber bands for shoelaces. It’s the inability to concentrate in class because you’re so hungry it hurts. In fact, Colbert says that these children experience higher behavioral problems, low school performance and even lower self-esteem.
Colbert says they do their best to reach as many people as they can, but the need is great and requires collaboration from the whole community. Colbert noted a study by the Center for Houston’s Future that projected the magnitude of the problem by 2040. The key factor was how well we educate, encourage and give a hand up to the very large and growing population of Houstonians who are not graduating from high school, not gaining any higher education or training beyond high school, and who are living in poverty.
Colbert also says that Humble ISD provides several widely beneficial programs, like the before school program, and she says the schools have greatly improved recognizing the warning signs of a struggling child in poverty.
Colbert says there is still a huge divide between the “haves” and “have nots,” and that her greatest wish is for more community education about what poverty really looks like, and what each of us can do to help those in need. Catholic Charities offers a school counseling program and educational training to school staff to private Catholic schools in the Houston area. Colbert beckons for the community to help young children learn to read and have books to take home, and to establish programs that teach people how to find and keep jobs.
All are in agreement that their overarching mission is to break the cycle of poverty, one person at a time. A public Facebook group, Humble Parents Angel Network, started in April 2017 as a grass-roots organization to increase awareness about poverty in the district. Within 72 hours, the group had organized clothing drives and school supply donations, and they are seeking interested community members.
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