George Orwell wrote, “when you are approaching poverty, you make one discovery which outweighs all of the others…the fact that it annihilates the future.” It can be argued that many of the bad decisions children and adolescents experiencing poverty tend to make, such as getting pregnant at a young age, dropping out of school, or getting involved in criminal activity, are made because poverty takes away the opportunities that illuminate a bright future. However, when children experiencing poverty are exposed to a good education from an early age, they gain the confidence and feelings of self-efficacy that allow them to dream of a bright future, giving them something positive to work towards. A good education counteracts the potent tunnel vision so quickly and easily constructed by a life in poverty. My experience working with the Rollins Center at the Douglass Cluster and East Lake locations has left me overwhelmed by the devastating effects of child poverty, yet hopeful in the face of tangible progress.
After battling Atlanta traffic every morning on the way to work, I would drive through a beautiful, gated community, at the heart of which was my assigned location—the East Lake Family YMCA and Drew Charter School. For someone who was supposed to be working with people experiencing poverty, I was confused by my seemingly affluent surroundings. I quickly came to know that while the community I was working in did not show obvious signs and symptoms of poverty, many of the children I was working with came from low-income families in the area. I was shocked to learn that only 20 years ago, the gated community I drove past every morning was the notorious East Lake Meadows Housing Projects—termed “Little Vietnam” for the violence and crime that characterized the area. In 1995, East Lake Meadows had a crime rate 18 times the national average, and 90% of residents were victims of crime themselves. The employment rate hung around 13%, resident average income averaged less than $5000, and only 4% of residents lived above the poverty line. This rampant poverty and crime was accompanied by grossly underperforming schools, with only 5% of 5th graders meeting state math standards and only 30% of students graduating from high school.
Two major changes in the area completely revitalized the East Lake community—first, Drew Charter School and a high quality early child care facility at the YMCA were built directly across the street from the housing projects. Second, the housing projects were transformed into The Villages of East Lake—a mixed income community in which half of the 1,500 residences are sold at market price and the other half are affordable government subsidized housing for low- income families. These changes have drawn more than $175 million in new investments to the area, and housing values in the area have risen at a rate almost four times faster than the rest of Atlanta. The amazing thing about the work done in East Lake is that it has breathed new life into the community without pushing low-income families out, as often happens with similar poverty relief efforts.
The Rollins Center for Language and Literacy has partnered with Drew Charter School and the East Lake Family YMCA since their inception, equipping teachers at these schools with the skills they need to use research-based practices for promoting student literacy. The progress from providing high quality education to these students has been incredible. When compared to Atlanta as a whole, East Lake students are greatly outperforming their peers—98% of 3rd-8th graders met or exceeded state standards in the 2012-2013 school year, and 80% of East Lake students are graduating high school, compared to 50% of Atlanta Public School students.
Beyond academic performance, there is a visible difference between East Lake students and those I worked with in the lowest performing cluster of Atlanta Public Schools—the Douglass Cluster. The Rollins Center has only recently begun their work with the Douglass Cluster, and while they have certainly made progress, there is still a lot of work to be done. Struggling students in schools like those in the Douglass Cluster must fight for the attention of an already overwhelmed teacher in a classroom with 30 other students, each of them holding their own unique educational challenges. In contrast, students in the East Lake Schools have been exposed to the teaching strategies promoted by the Rollins Center from their first experience with school, and they are given the support of three co-teachers who have more time and attention to give to individual students. But the biggest difference I saw between the Douglass Cluster students and those in East Lake was the confidence that characterized their interactions with their teachers, peers, and class work. As simple an activity as class introductions demonstrates this difference in confidence. Students at East Lake eagerly introduce themselves in complete sentences to the class with a sense of conviction, while those in the Douglass Cluster struggle to string a sentence together, speaking quietly and timidly. Clearly students exposed to a strong education gain more than simple explicit knowledge; they gain a sparkle in their eye, a sense of playfulness, and, most importantly, confidence. This confidence permeates the way these children approach the rest of their lives. If poverty annihilates the future, the confidence fostered by a good education illuminates it.