It’s not just the poor who are affected by poverty. It’s the entire community.
That’s why the schools needs to be more poverty-informed, according to Craig Lockhart, Newton County School System Deputy Superintendent.
“We are at the point where we’ve done a lot of academic things, but we feel we can’t move forward without addressing poverty,” he said.
Lockhart and Superintendent Samantha Fuhrey have been working on an initiative to address poverty in the schools district-wide.
“We need to be more poverty informed,” Lockhart said.
School district leaders, including members of the Board of Education, have visited people in the communities, transportation issues, and food deserts — areas where access to fresh produce, dairy and meats is limited or nonexistent. “We’re trying to be aware of what impacts our school as far as poverty.”
“We’re looking at taking the lead,” Fuhrey said. People who have expressed interest in addressing issues associated with situational or generational poverty have been invited to partner in the work. “As a school system, we’ve gone a bit further at [how] the impact poverty has had on our students’ ability to perform at their peak.”
“We feel like you learn more every time you engage in the dialogue,” Fuhrey said. She said she hoped Newton County could be a poverty-informed community, with structures set up that pull all the resources in the community.
That includes building partnerships with government, nonprofit organizations and the faith and business communities. It’s one of the things Laura Betram, Executive Director of Newton County Community Partnership, believes is vital in an era of doing more with less.
“Our focus is to get the best bang for our buck,” Betram said. “We’re a poor community. We know what works in low-income neighborhoods. What people don’t need is another informational booklet. What they need is someone to walk beside them.
“We have lots of little organizations doing good things, but if our goal is to have all students graduate from high school on time with the skills they need to have to be successful, we have to get better,” she said, adding that when the community focus is on the needs and desires of a group, working with them to help them improve the quality of life, those helped train their children, their friends and their neighbors, helping them improve their lives.”
Betram said she has worked with numerous focus groups in low-income areas around the state. “In every one of the focus groups, at least one person says they want a better for their child than they have themselves,” she said. “What we need to do is model the right behaviors and connect them with resources.”
Betram, Fuhrey and Lockhart have all trained with Donna Beegle, Ed.D., author of “See Poverty, Be The Difference,” and “An Action Approach to Educating Students Who Live in the Crisis of Poverty.” She is the president of Communications Across Barriers and the founder of The Poverty Bridge Project.
Beegle, Lockhart said “is very solution oriented. We can all identify the problem, but we all get stuck on what to do next.”
Fuhrey said in her 25 years of education, she has never heard of anyone who had a strategy for the solution. “The reason I’m so excited is there might be a way to change the lives of 70 percent of the children and those community members who are impacted by poverty.”
Betram said Beegle’s training looks at why people live in poverty and what can be done to connect them with resources and help. She said people are penalized for living in poverty. For example, “You can’t get to probation because you don’t have a car, so now you have three more weeks of probation. You can’t get to the alternative schools because they don’t offer transportation, you get in trouble.
“All of our children face the same risks,” she said. Children from middle class or professional families know how to see resources and how to get help. “People who live in poverty hang with other people who also don’t know [how to seek resources].
“The job of the partnership is to help educate people on how we can get access to [resources],” she said. “And that’s a one-on-one kind of relationship. You walk side by side with the person who needs help.”
But that means building relationships with individuals.
Fuhrey said, “Even well-intentioned people sometimes bring biases to the table that interferes with their ability to help people. We sometime make it really challenging to access the people who need help.”
Beegle, Betram said, suggests people who live in poverty are doing what they think is possible. “If you’re a person who lives in poverty, make friends with or connect with someone who doesn’t.
“We need each other,” she said. “I believe our church members are called by God to serve. Forge partnerships with churches and schools by finding common ground without compromising the other’s mission can have staggering results in the community.
“We need to embrace each other because we’re all one under Jesus,” Betram said.
Breaking out of silos
Fuhrey echoes Betram’s belief that everyone has to work together to solve the issue of poverty.
“This has to be something our community embraces,” she said. “The issue of poverty can’t be solved in silos. Everyone has to work together to solve the issue of poverty.”
One of the shared goals of the cities, the county, the Chamber of Commerce and NCSS is attracting and educating a workforce that lives in Newton County to attract businesses and manufacturers. “We need to help the Chamber and the mayors generate enough interest people bring their companies here. We need them, they need us,” Fuhrey said.
“All of the research points to poverty as a fundamental factor in just about everything,” she said. “If we can figure out as a community to lock arms [together], so when the chamber recruits a company, we’re ready to go.”
Data collected from tests shows what the school system needs to work on, including student achievement, more effective teaching, workforce development and ensuring kids have choices beyond high school, Fuhrey said.
Lockhart said NCSS has created an action plan to address issues of poverty in the community. That involves getting more community members trained in becoming coaches and navigators. “Once we get to the point where people want to do more, we can move forward,” he said.
Taking the next steps
Fuhrey said there is an opportunity for Newton County to create a framework for pulling together all the resources in this community and to trained people to be navigators to help people navigate their way out of poverty. These trained volunteers work with people to identify and be more sensitive to the needs of those living in poverty.
“Navigators, for example, [could help] a person who may have trouble to get an electric bill paid or in time,” Lockhart said. “Often, the people in distress don’t know who to talk to.”
Establishing a community-wide network connecting neighbors to those who can help them navigate the system is one of the goals set by NCSS. “While someone impacted by poverty might waste all their minutes on the phone [being] on hold, if I called and said, ‘This is Superintendent Fuhrey,’ they might get attention quickly.”
It’s not mentoring, she said. “It’s really a partnership that will help people access things they might not otherwise know to access.
“Now that we have more training, the next step will be to cast a wide event,” Fuhrey said.
Poverty awareness doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s an ongoing process,” said Lockhart.
Fuhrey and Lockhart are both certified poverty coaches, trained to inform the community and change perception, she said. “We’ve heard over the years during parent-teacher conferences, ‘Why isn’t Johnny’s mother here?’
“Someone who is poverty informed might recognize that [the mother] may not have enough gas to get to the conference,” Fuhrey said. “If that family has a navigator, that navigator might pick up the parent and bring them to the teacher conference.
“People impacted by poverty love their children and want the very best for their children, just as those not impacted,” Fuhrey said. “Sometimes, the message gets lost in the stereotypes. The school system is taking the lead, because we have to, but it will take a community wide effort – all the mayors, all the city councils, all the commissioners, our doctors, lawyers, and faith based organizations to really lock arms and say this is a problem must be solved together.
“Poverty is a topic that if the community acknowledges that it exists and if we begin to tackle it as a community, the whole boat rises,” she said. “We have to acknowledge it exists, talk about what it looks like and begin to address the ‘shame’ of poverty our whole community benefits, rather than continuing on our current path where the 70 percent [living in poverty] continues to grow.”
Lockhart said, “If you want a successful, viable community, we have to be able to educate the entire population. Until we get an educated population, we’re going to be limited in our economic development.”
BOE takes training
The five members of the school board have taken the poverty training and are considered poverty-informed, Fuhrey said. The next step is to invite people from other community organizations, such as the police and fire departments to participate.
“We’re not turning away anyone who wants to help,” Lockhart said. For the school system, wanting to a poverty informed community grows out of wanting to support children. “The fringe benefit is [helping] anyone in the community,” he said.
“It’s a topic we feel passionate about,” Fuhrey said. “We have to set up safety nets.”
Lockhart agrees. “It gets to the point where you know enough that you can’t be silent.”
Fuhrey said the synergy of the entire community is needed to do the work to eliminate or reduce the poverty rates in the country. “The whole idea of having a poverty-informed community and an organized group of navigators and neighbors really intensify the ability to meet the needs of the neighbors."
Fuhrey and Lockhart, as poverty coaches, will be able to train other volunteers. “The first thing is to generate a conversation in the community informing people that there’s work to be done and we’d like to get people involved.
“Matter of fact, I hope as a community we’ll be recognized for this work,” Fuhrey said. “If we figure this thing out, we change the lives of lots of people.”