State Representative Harold Love recently shared one of the most inconceivable statistics in Tennessee. The Nashville zip code 37208 has the highest percentage of incarceration in the nation, according to a Brookings Institution analysis. The school to prison pipeline is unquestionable. A child cannot succeed in life if they are denied the opportunities of a quality education. Lack of opportunity and quality education establishes the pathway to incarceration. Education remains the key to escaping poverty, even as poverty remains the biggest obstacle to education.
Tennessee has a richness of poverty. According to the Southern Education Foundation, over 50 percent of the nation’s children are in poverty. Poverty is a vast and complex issue that plagues communities in a seemingly endless cycle. Accompanying poverty is its sidekick, hunger. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 15.3 million children under 18 in the United States live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food necessary for a healthy life. These 8 states have statistically higher food insecurity rates than the US national average (14.6%): Arkansas (21.2%), Mississippi (21.1%), Texas (18.0%), Tennessee (17.4%), North Carolina (17.3%), Missouri (16.9%), Georgia (16.6%), and Ohio (16.0%). More than 1 in 5 children is at risk of hunger. Among African-Americans and Latinos, it’s 1 in 3 according to the USDA.
Carlos Lee, a PhD student at LSU wrote: “Students who live in poverty come to school every day without the proper tools for success. As a result, they are commonly behind their classmates physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively.” According to Eric Jensen at the Center for New York City Affairs, high-poverty schools are more likely to struggle with school climate concerns such as absenteeism and truancy, bullying, and trust and engagement issues that can weaken the learning environment. The road is to prison may arise out of the home, but it also veers through our school systems. Poverty puts too many students at a disadvantage before they even step foot in a classroom.
Distinguished educator Paul Reville, and Harvard University, launched the Education Redesign Lab to pilot a revolutionary approach to create a new, more comprehensive education model better designed to close achievement gaps and provide each and every child the support and opportunities they need to be prepared for success. Nashville or Memphis should also look at this approach.
The theory of the Harvard Education Redesign Lab is putting forth to overcome widespread inequity in child development and education support is that “we must dramatically redesign, align, and integrate our systems of child development and education.” They also believe we must start in early childhood to “tailor instruction to meet each child’s needs, while braiding health and social services with schools, and providing access for all to high-quality expanded learning and enrichment opportunities.” This, they argue, gives all children a “much fairer chance of succeeding in education and in life.”
I am mindful that the counter argument is that we do not want the state to raise our children. It grows dependence upon government. This is true. And I think we can put safeguards in place to easily prevent that from happening. However, I also believe that all children are created in the image of God. It is far more economical to educate a child, than it is to incarcerate an adult. That is why it is important to have private enterprise invest in this effort, not only with their money, but also their human capital. Leaders across our state need to make this a priority.
Our answer cannot be scores on a standardized test. Studies from the American Psychological Association reveal the psychological effects of hunger on education. Hunger is known to cause depression, anxiety and withdrawal, all of which are obstructions to a child trying to focus on education. Our solution must be to prepare every child for success. Perhaps we need to redefine what success looks like for those impacted by poverty? We can, and we must, address these momentous challenges.
Just to recap: Nashville zip code 37208 has the highest percentage of incarceration in the nation. Tennessee students are some of the poorest in the nation. We have the 4th highest food insecurity rate in the United States. There is no better time for changing the trajectory for children than now. We already know where those consequences lead.
Numerous philanthropic organizations have supported public education over the years, using their private dollars with public dollars to meet the needs of impoverished youth. Tennessee has numerous organizations, from the Hyde Family Foundation in West Tennessee to the Frist Foundation in Middle Tennessee to the Niswonger Foundation in East Tennessee which could lead this type of effort. It might even be something SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education could make their focus and mission. Nashville is in their backyard. We would be glad to assist.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.
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