Educators know there is a correlation between students growing up in poverty and lower levels of achievement. Trying to disconnect that link is the key challenge they face, they said.
Hammond schools Superintendent Walter Watkins said poverty is the greatest factor students must overcome to achieve success in academics.
In Hammond, 23 percent of families live in poverty, and more than 80 percent of nearly 12,750 students in the School City of Hammond qualify for free and reduced-cost lunch, a key indicator of poverty in the district. Watkins said three of every four students in Hammond's public school system live at or below the federal poverty line.
He said students from poverty not only lack financial support and resources but also typically live in single-parent homes where the parents and often the grandparents have experienced a history of poverty.
"Without significant interventions, the cycle seems to perpetuate itself," he said.
"Unfortunately, this leads to a strong misconception that students in poverty lack the ability or desire to learn; that is incorrect. The issue is one of engaging these learners in an ... appropriate environment that leads to success in school."
Watkins said students who come to school from impoverished backgrounds also lack the social and cultural foundation needed to achieve success in school.
In her role as a community leader and president and chief executive officer of Valparaiso-based Center of Workforce Innovation Inc., Linda Woloshansky said her staff has observed that those with limited means also are limited in grasping economies beyond their small sphere.
The Center of Workforce Innovation is a nonprofit organization that works with agencies, employers and schools and local universities to match trained workers with available jobs in the region.
"What I mean is, (of) the global economy -- where we all need to have some understanding of what is happening not only in our neighborhood but (also) our community, region, state, country and world," she said.
"Youth in poverty, or those who have limited education, seem to lack access to the factors affecting globalization. When we speak of current events or try to prepare folks with limited education for work, poverty has driven them to survive and not embrace the worldwide impacts."
Woloshanksy said her staff sees this even when taking students on short field trips; many have never been outside their city or town.
"All of this impacts their views and makes it more difficult when trying to help them successfully integrate into higher education and work," she said.
"This more narrow scope challenges them to succeed in settings that are looking for, or preparing, a 'global workforce,' " that is, young people with universally sought hard skills (math, science, literacy) and soft skills (understanding and taking direction, being responsible and relating to others socially).
Similar issues abound in the nearby south suburban Illinois communities.
Karen Adams, co-director of the Lansing Community Food Pantry, said they see third generations of families using the pantry. She said they serve approximately 140 families twice a week, and the ethnicity is divided evenly among black, white and Hispanic.
"Some of them look to the government to play the role of fathers in the home. Too many young men are growing up without fathers who can model the behavior of what it means to be a father and a husband," Adams said.
"It is very, very difficult for people who have not done well in school to get jobs. It's not like it was when I grew up, and people could go into the steel mill and earn a good living. Those jobs are gone. You must have a college degree. We also see people who never in their wildest dreams thought they'd lose their jobs and be living in poverty."
Education ineffective without hope, motivation
Across the country, being prepared for a global economy becomes especially important as the Hoosier state wrestles with poverty and how to improve preschool education, high school graduation rates, and attaining higher education and job training.
The federal government says to be considered living in poverty, a family of four must earn $23,850 or less a year. According to data from the Indiana Youth Institute, the percentage of children living in poverty in Lake County is 31.3 percent and in Porter County, 13.2 percent.
The percentage of families who live in poverty in Gary is 33.4 percent, just below East Chicago, which is at 33.5 percent. The numbers of families who are considered poor in Porter County are lower, with Portage having 10.9 percent of its families living in poverty and 10.4 percent in Valparaiso.
"The biggest issue I hear is how poverty crushes hope," said Indiana Youth Institute Chief Executive Officer Bill Stanczykiewicz. He said that was not to diminish the other consequences of poverty such as hunger, lack of stable housing and lack of access to health care.
"Poverty crushes aspirations," he said.
"A child starts believing that success is for somebody else, opportunities are for somebody else, opportunities are for kids with a different skin color than I have, so why even try?"
Stanczykiewicz said it's important to help children "record a different reality." He said that involves improving access to information and education, improving access to transportation, and providing mentors to help children develop a new reality.
Fifteen percent of Americans between ages 16 and 24 are neither in school nor working, according to an Opportunity Nation coalition study released in late 2013.
In Indiana, the percentage of "idle youth" is just less than 15 percent. Stanczykiewicz said young people with only a high school diploma struggle to find jobs.
“This certainly a distressing statistic; these young people have written for themselves an economic death sentence,” he said.
The Excell Centre, which operates across the state, works to help adults find careers. Todd Strong, the lead Excell Centre teacher in Howard County, echoed Stanczykiewicz's concern. Strong said the problem is less a skills gap and more an aspiration gap.
“Impoverished families tend to have impoverished ideas and knowledge of hope to navigate the high cost of university," Strong said.
Valparaiso schools Superintendent Mike Berta concurred, noting social psychologist Abraham Maslow's classic theories of motivation developed in the 1940s still hold true today. Maslow's research was designed to identify what motivated people to strive to better their lives.
"The studies revealed that until a person has basic human needs satisfied, motivation for betterment of one’s life is minimal, if it exists at all," Berta said.
"The study defined basic human needs as hunger, thirst, clothing, adequate shelter, adequate sleep, safety and security, employment, and social stability. Absent the satisfaction of these basic needs, the probability of achieving high motivation to advance in life was very low."
Berta said Maslow’s studies have always demonstrated to him that poverty, and poverty-related conditions, affect humans' motivation to learn.
"Perhaps this is why the correlation between high poverty and low academic achievement is evidenced at high levels over a variety of geographic locations," he said.
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(Source: Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission)
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