Poverty At Home A Big Issue For Area School Districts

An overwhelming majority of area school districts are in possession of above-average poverty rates in New York state.

According to a report from Buffalo Business First last month, 16 of Chautauqua County’s 18 public school districts ranked in the bottom half of 455 Upstate New York school districts included in the release.

The report presented the percentage of each district’s students living below the federally designated 2012 poverty level by taking into account each district’s total school-age population. The highest ranking Chautauqua County school district, which reflects the lowest poverty rate percentage, was Bemus Point Central School at 79 with a 10.36 percent poverty rate. The lowest ranking district was Clymer Central School at 445 with a 36.94 percent poverty rate.

Jamestown Public Schools ranked only slightly higher than Clymer at 444, with a 36.47 percent poverty rate. According to Tim Mains, JPS superintendent, that number has seemingly increased from year to year, and school districts in general must oftentimes implement a means of assisting students who enter school with a disadvantage.

“There’s no question that poverty creates a real and very specific set of challenges for schools,” Mains said. “From what I understand, the poverty rate has been gradually, but steadily, increasing in Jamestown for some time now. And the kids who grow up in deep poverty have very significant disadvantages when they start school because they haven’t had the same kinds of opportunities that affluent or middle class families have.”

Mains said the most common disadvantage that students from low-income households have is deficiencies in language and literacy. Due to this trend, he said strategies are put in place to help those students achieve a higher level of competency as they prepare to progress through their schooling.

“In such a situation, there are certainly steps that we would take,” Mains said. “The biggest preparation for reading is learning verbal and oral language. When kids come to you with a very limited exposure to oral language, and they aren’t used to speaking in complete sentences, you’ve got to start addressing that first in order to make headway in being able to decipher written language.

“I’ve always believed that education is the best pathway out of poverty,” he continued. “Nationally, there is a correlation between high poverty rates and low student performance, but one of the mistakes people make is presuming that poor kids can’t learn. Poor kids can learn, and poor kids do learn. And, frankly, you can’t lower standards. You have to raise standards and hold those kids to them; because the more you raise standards, the more kids are going to accomplish.”

According to G. Scott Thomas, Business First projects editor, the findings of the report have remained largely consistent in the time it has been tracking New York state poverty rates.

“There have always been a few Southern Tier districts near the bottom of the list,” Thomas said. “We have been tracking Upstate New York poverty rates for years, but the rankings themselves don’t change that much. What’s worth noting, I think, is that there are pockets of rural poverty that are as severe as pockets of urban poverty. The latter are more publicized, but they are no more serious as problems.”

Collectively, the performance of Western New York districts spanned the length of the 455-district rankings, although five of the top 10 ranked schools were from the region. The top-ranking Western New York district – at No. 3 overall – was Orchard Park with a rate of 4.88 percent, while the lowest district was Buffalo, ranked at 450 with a rate of 38.13 percent.

According to Thomas, there were no discernable trends in the way of school poverty rates in relation to geographic location. The poverty rate percentage of all Upstate New York districts listed in the report spanned from 4.28 percent to 43.86 percent.