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33% of students here live in poverty; Milwaukee schools feel impact on learning

By Bill Glauber and Ben Poston

One out of three school-age children in Milwaukee lived with a family in poverty in 2005, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Wednesday.

Milwaukee ranked sixth highest overall among the nation's 70 largest school districts; only Cleveland, New Orleans, Detroit, Fresno, Calif., and St. Louis had higher percentages of children living with families in poverty.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said creating jobs, resolving school-funding issues, getting more fathers involved in raising their children and getting kids to stay in school are key elements in reversing poverty's grip on the city.

"I literally go into classrooms and say, 'I'm Tom Barrett, I'm mayor of Milwaukee, and I'm begging you to stay in school and work hard,' " Barrett said. "We know that's the long-term solution. The short-term solutions are job retention and work force development."

Overall, 12% of Wisconsin children ages 5 through 17 lived with a family in poverty. Within many school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, the rates were extremely low. Ozaukee, Washington and Waukesha counties ranked among the nation's 28 counties with the lowest poverty rates of school-age children.

But Milwaukee continued to struggle, with 38,785 of 117,884 school-age children living with a family in poverty, up nearly 10,000 kids from the 2000 census.

Brother Bob Smith, president of Messmer Catholic Schools, said he sees the impact of poverty every school day. Eighty percent of the 1,500 students in Messmer schools are eligible for free school breakfasts and lunches, he said.

Recently, one student missed classes because her family was homeless and she couldn't get her uniform washed, Smith said. He said there are numerous cases of children who come to school in need of warmer coats or money for bus fares.

"One of the first things is to make sure we understand what poverty is," he said. "On one hand, it's not a death sentence. I grew up in Chicago in poverty. You deal with gangs or you deal with being made fun of because you don't have the latest shoes, or you're eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.

"On the other hand, if you're able to really get kids to believe that there's a future and there's hope, and so many educational opportunities, you have to let them know they have to earn those," he said. "You don't get scholarships just because you're poor or you're black. You get them because you earn them."

William G. Andrekopoulos, superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools, said poverty affects schoolchildren in a range of areas, including academic preparedness and health.

"We need to get kids in quality day-care programs so they can deal with the deficits children have, like vocabulary development," he said.

He said many impoverished children in the school system are in desperate need of care for physical, mental, even dental health. Children who are either homeless or who are often moving from home to home - and school to school - also are at risk, he said. Recently, one school principal told him that a child was acting out in class. It turned out the child needed a blanket because he was sleeping at night on a pallet.

"This housing thing is probably bigger than I ever know or can imagine," Andrekopoulos said.

School kids living in poverty also may be in unstable family situations, he said.

"When kids live in poverty, there is such a disarray with who really is the primary adult in the child's life," he said. "A number of people are struggling to make a living, (working) multiple jobs; their own survival is critical. That becomes an issue with the family. The whole parenting thing is an issue. It is a problem for the school system. We don't want to use it as excuses."

— Bill Glauber and Ben Poston
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


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