Tuesday, March 01, 2011
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Dr. Mary Ahillen discusses poverty and Title I in District 27 schools

Part 1

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[March 01, 2011]  In 2008 Dr. Mary Ahillen joined the administrative staff of the District 27 schools as their newest superintendent, replacing the retiring Kirby Rogers.

Ahillen came to the district from the Bloomington-Normal area, where her educational career began as an English teacher and progressed through the administrative ranks to vice principal, then principal.

As she spent her time educating, she also continued her own education, receiving her doctorate degree in 2009.

Upon taking the position at District 27, she and husband Ray relocated to Lincoln and have happily settled into the community. It was at her office that we sat down and discussed the issue of poverty in our schools.

The face of poverty in our public schools

In District 27 there are six schools: Adams, Central, Jefferson, Northwest, Washington-Monroe and Lincoln Junior High School. Public schools in Lincoln that are not in District 27 are West Lincoln-Broadwell and Chester-East Lincoln.

Today more than ever perhaps, schools are dealing with the effects of poverty on children.

Children who grow up in low-income households face different challenges in life than those who do not.


It isn't something one enjoys saying, but the fact is, living "with" is a lot easier than living "without," and it is reflected in children as they enter their education years.

This is a fact District 27 teachers face on a daily basis. As they work to guide and teach in the elementary grades, they struggle with addressing the needs of all the children they are entrusted with, and they struggle to get all of them to the same level of education.

There is a common misperception that low-income children are willfully neglected by their parents, but Ahillen knows this isn't necessarily the case.

"These are families that are worried about making a house payment and keeping the heat on," she said. "They are worried about food and keeping the kids clothed. These families are just surviving.

"The idea of helping with homework, or turning off the television when that is their only source of entertainment, just doesn't occur to them. Their whole focus is on 'How am I getting by?' and if they don't have a job, 'What will tomorrow bring?'"

"I don't think we have any parents that don't care about their kids," Ahillen said, "but their psyche is not around education. In fact, they may be sighing in relief, thinking, 'The teachers can take care of that, and it's one thing I don't have to worry about.'"

In today's economy the face of poverty is not just one face. Families who have never lived in poverty before now may find themselves in those low-income situations as good jobs go to the wayside and new jobs become harder to find.

This is situational poverty, and children in these families are affected by the stress of what the family is going through.


There is also generational poverty, where today's parents grew up in those poverty situations, and their parents were the ones fighting to survive. As children they didn't have parental attention to education, and now as adults living in poverty themselves, they don't see the importance of it for their own children.

Ahillen said that because of these poverty situations, many of the children in these families begin their education career at a disadvantage. They have not matured to their age level and have missed some life experiences.

While moderate and higher income families may have the time and money for family vacations where children see new things and learn about life beyond their home and television, low-income families cannot afford that luxury.

When all of the family earnings is going toward physical needs, there is nothing left for educational games, toys or even storybooks that could help that child develop.

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As these children begin their educational careers, there are a few factors that immediately stand out which teachers must address.

Many of these students lack a well-developed vocabulary. Their ability to express themselves verbally is limited. To address this, teachers must immediately start working with these children in speech and literacy and help them develop communicative skills.

These children are also the ones who most often have behavioral issues that vary from simply having trouble staying quiet and paying attention, to acting out and causing problems in the classroom.

Ahillen said teachers address these issues in a variety of ways, most of which involve rewards and consequences.

She explained one classroom program that involves labeling behavior as "red" or "green." The idea behind the program is simple yet affective.

Green behaviors are what the teacher wants to encourage and red behavior is what must be curtailed.

When a student exhibits good behavior, he or she is acknowledged as being "green" and may be praised or even rewarded by the teacher for that behavior.

Red behavior brings consequences designed to help the child understand that what he or she has done is unacceptable.

The overall effect in the classroom is that the "green" child enjoys praise and some extra attention and is thus motivated to continue the good behavior, while the "red" child sees what he or she is missing out on by displaying bad behavior and will also be motivated to behave in a more acceptable fashion.

In other classrooms, the problem of delinquent homework is being addressed by "homework parties." Again Ahillen says it is a simple concept. The parties don't have to be complicated affairs for the children to enjoy them, but they do have to be specifically for the children who do their homework and turn it in to the teacher on time.

And like the red and green designations for behavior, the plan is that those who do their homework are acknowledged and rewarded, which motivates them to continue doing their homework, while those who miss out on the special treatment are motivated to work harder so they, too, can be a part of something special.

It should be noted that the programs put in place in the schools benefit all the children in the classroom, and not all low-income children misbehave and act out, and not all middle and upper income children do their homework.

What teachers strive for in the classroom is to offer quality education for all their students, and to bring them all to the same level of education by the time they reach their junior high and high school years.

However, there is a price tag attached to offering quality education, and in the current economic atmosphere, funding for education is at risk on nearly every front from federal to state.

In the final segment of this article, Dr. Ahillen will explain Title I funding, how it benefits District 27 and what the future of that funding may be.


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