Panel tackles problems of childhood poverty, learningCalls for more preschool
Camden — Poverty and homelessness as well as high rates of opiate addiction, tension in the home and avoidance of reporting mental illness or abuse all contribute to Knox County students' learning problems, according to experts.
A panel of experts speaking on the topic, “Our Changing Community: What is the Impact on Our Youngest Students?” also said greater access to quality preschool could improve student performance.
Five Town CTC sponsored the Jan. 23 panel and a lunch at John Street United Methodist Church attended by educators, law enforcement officials, social services workers and representatives of nonprofit organizations. The event was organized in response to a letter from Camden Rockport Elementary School kindergarten teacher Maureen Gordon, who was unable to attend.
The panel consisted of Five Town Community School District (CSD) and Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) 28 Superintendent Elaine Nutter; Penquis Community Action Program Regional Manager Pinney Beebe-Center; social work graduate student Danielle Walsh; and Juvenile Community Corrections Officer for Waldo County Roy Curtis.
Marti Wolfe, Five Town CTC's community coordinator and mentor coordinator, moderated the event, and began by reading the letter from Gordon that was the impetus for the panel. In it, Gordon said she wanted to raise awareness about poverty in the community and how it affects students.
The panel spoke in turn, addressing the questions: What is the reality of demographic change in our Five Town Community? What is the capacity of families to assist their young people when they run into difficulty? and What is the capacity of families to assist their young people to thrive?
Nutter noted that Maine overall is losing population, with more people dying each year than being born. She said just 35 babies are born each day in the state, compared with some counties in Texas where there are 400 births a day. However, the school populations in the Five Town CSD and MSAD 28 are “fairly stable."
One thing that has changed is that about 28 percent of MSAD 28 students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch now (about 31 percent of Camden Rockport Elementary School students), compared with just 13 percent 10 years ago, she said.
She added that the district is seeing more homeless families, and families who find homes are having a harder time staying in them than before.
Beebe-Center agreed, saying poverty has increased, and Maine now has the second-highest percentage of homeless students in the nation. Because of the long-running economic downturn, many jobs with good wages and benefits have been lost, she said. The result is that families live “one health crisis away from possibly losing their home.”
Poor students live with a level of tension at home that makes it hard for them to learn, she said. She added that it is not unusual these days for two families to crowd together into a one-family residence.
She also noted Knox County has the highest rate of opiate addiction in the state, and drug-treatment programs in the area, being mostly private-pay, are not affordable for many people who need them.
Walsh, who is an intern at Many Flags in Regional School Unit (RSU) 13 under a Promise Neighborhoods grant administered through Penquis, cited statistics gathered by the Maine Children's Alliance showing that 20.3 percent of children in Knox County under the age of 18 live in poverty, and 48 percent of students in the county are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
Nutter said surveys the district has done show that fewer children attend preschool now than a generation ago. Low-income children, she said, enter kindergarten 18 months behind grade level. The problem is all the more serious because more is expected of children in kindergarten now than was the case when their parents were children.
“Today's kindergarten is yesterday's first grade,” she said.
Beebe-Center said many families earn little more than the limit for Head Start or a subsidized pre-kindergarten program, so their preschool children spend the day with relatives and do not get the early education they need to help them do well once they start school.
She also noted schools offer only limited support for students who live in families where there is domestic abuse or mental illness, and those families often do not ask for what help is available, because they are afraid of being stigmatized.
Nutter said her districts have guidance counselors to help students, and are considering adding a social worker.
She and Beebe-Center agreed the social service system can be hard to access, and is sometimes hostile to those it is meant to serve. The two of them and Walsh called for greater access to early enrichment programs for pre-kindergarten children.
Beebe-Center noted that, while the problems of poverty in the region are daunting, it is important to “call our challenges for what they are” in order to find solutions.
Curtis, who works primarily with adolescents, concurred with the other three about the importance of responding to the problems that accompany poverty early in a child's life.
“The early intervention and prevention piece is huge,” he said.
He went on to say families struggle to stay out of poverty, and municipalities have fewer resources with which to help them. Curtis said he often refers families to GEAR Parent Network, which has offices in many communities in Maine. Its website is gearparentnetwork.com.
Curtis said he thinks society tends to over-criminalize children, and his office, which is part of the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC), tries to avoid involving them in the criminal justice system. In fact, he said, his office diverts three quarters of the young people who come through to programs outside of the courts.
“Kids don't get anything out of a courtroom,” he said.
Of the youth who are diverted, 80 percent to 90 percent do not re-offend, Curtis said.
He added that DOC should get more involved in early intervention and prevention programs like Five Town CTC.
During the question-and-answer period that followed the panel discussion, several people agreed with those who called for more early childhood education opportunities for poor families, including public pre-kindergarten.
Also, Amy Libby of Harbor Family Services noted that transportation is a big issue affecting families in the region, with conflicts arising between adults' jobs, school and other programs for children and many family members sharing vehicles.
Lisa Ettinger, vice chairman of Five Town CTC's' board also noted that families need case management services, because “It's really hard to navigate the different systems.”
Sarah E. Reynolds is copy editor for the Courier Gazette and Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, ride her ATV and play word games.