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FAYETTEVILLE -- Former students who grew up in poverty and flourished after graduating mention specific teachers, school nurses, principals and coaches they credit with helping them succeed, the president and founder of a nonprofit group told hundreds of educators who packed the Performing Arts Center on Friday.

Students had the day off, giving about 750 of the Fayetteville School District's educators time to meet with top administrators. The day began with a three-hour session at Fayetteville High School that Superintendent Matthew Wendt described as a time to open up conversations about a variety of topics, including the needs of the district's children living in poverty.

Proportion of students in Fayetteville School District from low-income families

The percentage of children qualifying for free and reduced-price meals serves as an indication of poverty in schools. Qualifying for the meals is based on income and the number of people living in a household. For this school year, a family of four earning an annual income of up to $44,863 would be eligible for federally subsidized school meals. The percentage of eligible students and total district enrollment during a sampling of years in the Fayetteville School District is below.

School YearPercent EligibleEnrollment

2016-1739.59,864

2015-1639.449,652

2014-1540.39,503

2010-1139.98,838

2004-0532.88,212

Source: Arkansas Department of Education

Every school district has students from low-income families and students who are homeless, whether they are in a shelter or are doubled-up with relatives or friends, Wendt said. In Fayetteville, the level of poverty has increased to about 40 percent within the past few years.

Wendt is interested in staff members learning how to partner with others in the community to ensure all students get the support they need, whether they are homeless, children of poor parents, learning English as a second language or need gifted and talented education services. Potter's House is one partner with a variety of programs helping children, including tutoring, a preschool, a thrift store and a teen leadership program.

Shawn Schwartzman, founder and president of Potter's House, talked about two girls born on the same day but who are growing up in Fayetteville quite differently.

One of the girls lives in a two-parent household in a house with four bedrooms for five people. The family has internet access in the home and two cars. She never worries about what she is going to eat or where she is going to stay.

The other girl lives in a one-bedroom home with seven people, Schwartzman said. Her parents are incarcerated. The home has no Internet access. Her guardian doesn't have a driver's license and can't take her to activities. Hunger is a constant concern, and the girl has been homeless within the past three months.

Both girls are examples of students who are in classrooms in the district, Schwartzman said. He knows teachers want to push both of them to succeed.

Schwartzman has asked former Fayetteville students who grew up in difficult circumstances and did well in life about what helped them succeed. Educators are a group of people who are a source of consistency in the lives of low-income children, he said. Former students told Schwartzman they did best in the classrooms of teachers who knew them well.

"They mention you by name," he said. "You asked them about who they are, who their siblings are, how things were at home."

Former students said they needed their teachers to believe in them even when life circumstances seemed overwhelming.

"Fayetteville's a really good place," Schwartzman said. "We also have to understand Fayetteville; it's a hard place. There's a lot of hard things going on."

Discussing the impact of poverty and challenging family circumstances made Jan Jewell think of specific students in her sixth-grade math classes at Holt Middle School, she said. The increased number of children living in poverty seems to have happened fast, though Jewell said the reason might be because she wasn't aware so many people were living a different way of life.

"Sometimes you wonder why they act a certain way," Jewell said. "It may not have anything to do with what was going on in the class."

Children who are failing in school or who have behavioral problems are often children whose needs are not being met at home, are responsible for the care of siblings and don't have a place at home to do homework, said Brandy Pledger, a sixth-grade science teacher at Owl Creek School. Pledger is at Owl Creek because she wants to make a difference in the lives of those students. The school has a variety of programs to help students develop leadership skills, to encourage good behavior and to make sure they are fed, including free school breakfasts each morning.

"They need people that care about them," Pledger said.

NW News on 10/29/2016

Print Headline: Fayetteville teachers hear of impact of poverty

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