A group of 4-year-olds at Killip Elementary School in Flagstaff settled into their tiny chairs and attempted to open their cheese and cracker packages.
“If you need help opening your snack please ask a friend or ask a teacher; do not use your teeth,” preschool teacher Tammy Lozano reminds them.
Lozano helps a child put her straw into her juice box. She says the food many children get at school is the only food they eat all day. Eighty-four percent of the children at Killip Elementary qualify for free and reduced meals.
“The worst moments I think are around holidays,” Lozano says, “There’s a lot of frustrations at home I’m sure with not being able to provide a meal for the holidays because school is out and they’re having to find child care because parents have to work.”
Poor students now make up a majority of kids in public schools in the west. That’s according to a recent study from the Southern Education Foundation. But, as the rate of poverty in schools has gone up, the amount of state funding for students hasn’t kept pace. So school leaders in Flagstaff are left to fill that gap.
Flagstaff’s poverty rate has steadily climbed over the last decade. Like the rest of the region, more than half of Flagstaff’s students are poor. The amount of state and federal funds per pupil averages about $6,000.The state contributes $4,200 of that. In Massachusetts, home to some of the best schools in the country, students get more than twice that amount from that state.
So Flagstaff educators trying to make the biggest impact with little funds have focused their efforts on two major populations -- toddlers and their parents.
Killip Elementary Principal Joe Gutierrez says too many students were coming into kindergarten unprepared, speaking little or no English. So he decided to use some of their federal dollars to open up a preschool.
“Many of our parents cannot afford to send their kids to preschool so they send them to childcare,” Gutierrez says, “There’s a great big difference between preschool and childcare.”
And for their parents, the county just started offering Moms and Dads "Parenting College." It’s currently funded by a local grant. The idea started in Harlem but was adapted for Flagstaff by Coconino County School Superintendent Robert Kelty. He says teaching parents about early childhood education is the key.
“We’ve designed our educational systems to not value the most important period of our educational mind,” Kelty says “So how do you change that culture of perception? It’s going to take a long time. But right now I think what we did right was starting at the home. Let’s first start with empowering our parents with what they can do at home.
Kelty, a former Arizona teacher of the year, is a bit of a visionary. He believes, through programs like this, parents can change behaviors at home, prepare their children better for school and ultimately break the poverty cycle.
“If you empower families with knowledge, behaviors will change,” Kelty says, “And if you empower people with community, people will not feel so isolated. And that type of community will also bring out the best in us.”
Kelty hired Rene Hobbs to run the program. Hobbs says the moms and dads -- many of them teenagers -- discuss their own upbringing and how that influences their parenting decisions.
“Some students will express it as humor ‘oh yeah I used to get kicked and you know he was crazy,’” Hobbs explains, “How I address that is I’m glad to see you’ve found a way to deal with what happened. But let’s talk about if that was ok. And then after 15 minutes more of the conversation she’s like, ‘you’re right that did impact me. There were times I wanted to commit suicide. Now I’ve realized that’s not ok to do and I’m empowering others telling my story so it doesn’t happen to them.’”
Another innovation, the school district is spending some of its federal dollars earmarked for poor students on a family resource center, where parents and kids can get their basic needs met. Many come for the free tutoring. Some come for much more -- showers, clothes, food. They can even do their laundry.
Rosie Mitchell and her 11-year-old daughter Lee Ann are homeless. They live in their car half of the year and in colder months stay with family. On a recent afternoon a volunteer helped Lee Ann with her math homework, while Mom Rosie sat at a desk writing in a notebook. I asked her what she was working on.
“Vocabulary words,” she said. “So I can start teaching my daughter.”
Flagstaff educators believe it’s a two pronged strategy working with parents as well as their children to eventually break the cycle of poverty.