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August 19, 2012

EDITORIAL: Reducing obstacles to learning makes big difference for kids

Special efforts are needed in Vigo County

TERRE HAUTE — Life away from the classroom affects a student’s ability to learn.

That point was worth a few extra moments of consideration last week as Vigo County schools opened the 2012-13 year. Educators working in Indiana public schools have experienced intense scrutiny and change as a result of reforms enacted by state officials. Policies governing the operation, funding, and compensation practices inside schools have been overhauled in the name of better learning opportunities for Hoosier children.

Such legislation does not address a particularly influential factor in education — the home life of a student. This community should understand that component of the learning equation better than most others in Indiana.

The Commission on Childhood Poverty, created by state legislators through Public Law 131-2009, met monthly in the latter half of 2011, conducted town forums around Indiana, and produced a comprehensive summary, “Childhood Poverty: Indiana’s Emergency Report and Recommendations.” The commission found that Vigo County had the state’s highest poverty rate for residents under age 18 at 28.7 percent. That’s higher than two of the largest metropolitan areas — Marion County (home of Indianapolis) and Lake County (home of Gary). Another poverty calculation released this month, Kids Count, put Vigo’s rate slightly lower.

Those are statistics, though. Many folks see the numbers and wonder what a 28.7-percent child poverty rate looks like in real life.

Well, here goes …

Those under-privileged children probably live in families without health insurance or child care. The commission calculated that 116,000 Hoosier kids are not covered by health insurance. Also, the No. 1 barrier to steady employment for low-income families in Indiana is a lack of affordable, reliable child care; thus, a parent of small children may be unable to work. Young people living in an unstable housing situation, or even homelessness, also face greater struggles with school work, family conflict, abuse, neglect, mental-health and behavior problems, and physical health issues, according to the commission report. And, yes, there are homeless families in Terre Haute.

Intervention by a community, to help reduce obstacles kids face, makes a difference. The long-term dividends of easing poverty include young adults working in career-oriented jobs, owning homes, avoiding a life of crime, and staying off welfare and other forms of public assistance.

Every step in that effort matters. An encouraging announcement emerged from the Vigo County School Corporation’s rally Monday to kick off the school year. A “food backpack program,” initiated a few years ago at Terre Haute North Vigo High School, will operate corporation-wide in 2012-13. Students will be able to pick up nutritious food each Friday, and carry the items home in their backpacks. Fundraisers within the corporation schools will raise money for the food, which will be purchased through the VCSC food services department.

The potential impact is great. More than half of all Vigo County students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and that percentage has risen steadily in recent years — 46.2 in 2007, 47.8 (2008), 48.9 (2009), 51.5 (2010), 51.6 (2011), and 54 this year. In 2000, 35 percent of Vigo kids received such assistance.

If that extra food — a couple more weekend meals — gives motivation to study to just a handful, a dozen, or maybe a hundred kids, Terre Haute will become a better place for them, and all of us, to live.

 

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