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MN2020 - Tuesday Talk: Fighting Poverty at School
Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Tuesday Talk: Fighting Poverty at School

December 17, 2013 By Joe Sheeran, Communications Director

We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for poor school performance and achievement. Therefore, Minnesota must build an education system that helps students overcome disadvantages that result from lacking access to adequate housing, food, health care, high quality early childhood education and the myriad of other amenities that impact learning.

Today, between 8 and 9:30, St. Paul teacher Nick Faber will join us to talk about what school modifications should look like to overcome poverty in education.

Nick taught at John A. Johnson Elementary, a full-service community school, which “focuses on raising student achievement levels by removing barriers that may prevent students from being in school every day.”

What’s your take on school modifications to fight poverty?

What supports do schools need that aren’t already there?


Post your comments or questions in the box below, scroll down to see the ongoing conversation, and use "refresh" to see new comments. 

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Rachel says:

    December 17, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Good morning all! Nick will be joining us shortly. Tell us…. what are you seeing in your local district?

  • Nick Faber says:

    December 17, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Good Morning,

    As it states above, my name is Nick Faber and I’m a teacher in St. Paul and an officer at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.  I taught at John A. Johnson, an Achievement Plus site in St. Paul from its opening in 2000 to 2012 as an elementary science specialist.  Johnson is a school where about 98% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and the community school model that we used there helped break down many of the barriers that our students came to school with.  That’s the perspective I’d like to bring to the discussion today.

  • Joe says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Nick, what are some specific things that happen at John A. Johnson that are not traditionally found in MN schools? Is it feasible to bring this model to other MN schools?

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:16 am

      So JAJ was the old Johnson high school that used to have 1400 high school students in it, then sat vacant as storage and neighborhood eye sore for years.  We remodeled it and enrolled about 400 pre k through 6 graders in it along with a number of community services.  The re-thinking of space in our community—-rather than closing schools that have open space, using it differently to benefit the community is one thing that I think many communities could look at.

  • Liz says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:11 am

    Seems to me it would be far easier and smarter for Minnesota to invest in housing, food, childcare at the front end instead of leaving it to school districts to deal with the ramifications of our failure to do so.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:20 am

      The idea with community schools is that we approach this together.  I absolutely agree that this shouldn’t be the soul responsibility of our teachers and schools, but it is interesting what happens when you can bring services into the building where teachers build relationships with those folks.  For example, at JAJ the East Side Family Center is almost as front and center when you walk in the door as the school office is.  And staff considers them part of the school.  When we would here a kid saying “I’m not going to be coming here any more, we’re moving.”  staff could contact the housing specialists and get them out to the house to see what the situation was and if we could keep them in the same place for stability.  We were taking a very transient community and stabilizing it with the communication between teachers and partners

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:24 am

      I would also agree with your idea about providing childcare on the front end.  We had an awesome PreK program at JAJ that was a contributor to our success.  We’d really like to make sure that all kids get access to our pre k programs.  Every year in St. Paul we have about 600-800 kids on a waiting list.  We were able to ensure though referendum funding that all kids got all day K, now that the state is picking up that cost, we should be able to ensure all kids get access to pre k.

  • Mark says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:20 am

    As a parent of an autistic adult son who went through Minneapolis Public schools, I would first like to say Thank You to all of the Profesional educators and support staff in our public scholl systems.

    One thing that would be a substantial improvement would be to re-visit and modify the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  A great idea when implemented with the Federal Government paying 60% of the total costs for all aspects of education and building modifications, but when ammended the words “up to” were added.  This allows the government to pay much less than the original 60%.  This places an undue cost on the states and local governments and school boards to take from other needed programs and needs.  It also places an undue hardship on those urbanm schools who have higher levels of economically disadvantaged families sending their children.

    I would also like to see a massive build up on making Early Childhood Family Education programs available to ALL students.  Art Rolnick, Former SVP of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has shown that for every $1 invested in ECFE programs and Head Start, our society sees a return of $7 in savings and improved earning power of the individuals.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:30 am

      Thank you Mark for the support you give to the educators of your children.  Underfunding of special ed is a huge concern, as are the number of students of color in our special ed programs.  Our main concern from our members is being able to meet the needs of those students in this funding environment.  The easiest way to ensure this is to lower the caseloads on our spec ed teachers and class sizes on the regular ed settings that those students are in part of the time.  This allows all teaching staff to give the time needed for all the individuals in the class and establish strong partnerships with their families.

      Couldn’t agree more with the investment on the front end.  All educators no its our best use of money.  Ask any Kindergarten teacher if they can tell which of their students have had access to our prek and ECFE services and they can tell you.  The students are just further ready to learn.

  • Sue says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

    My local elementary school’s poverty rate is near 80%, and attracts out-of-district enrollments of families in poverty while middle-class families flee. What works to retain and attract middle-class families at the same time all the needs associated with living in poverty are addressed?

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:36 am

      The other thing that I think was special about JAJ is that it was not just a community school, it was a neighborhood school.  Almost all of our students walked, including some of the middle class families in the neighborhood.  Part of the reason those middle class parents didn’t leave was because they had invested time and interest in the development of the school from the start.  The school and it’s academic program was designed by parents and community members from the start.  When parents have input, and skin in the game, they want to stay.  The other thing we found was that some middle class parents were driving their students in because of the academic program and after school program.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:41 am

      The other thing that is important for continuing to meet the needs of those neediest students are wrap around services in the building like a dental clinic, like a full time nurse, like a housing specialist.  If you have a strong academic program that meets the needs of a diverse population, the middle class families will stay, but then what makes the program different are those services for our more needy students.  A nurse is soooo important, and it’s someone that’s missing from a lot of schools.  We have an East Side school with a nurse on one half day per week right now.

      • Arty Dorman says:

        December 17, 2013 at 9:49 am

        Another key need is programming during the summer - either that or some variation of year-round school - for students who, owing to poverty, don’t go to elite camps and enrichment programs, or travel to stimulating places with their families during the summer break.  It is well known that the “summer slide” is a major contributor for the failure of kids living in poverty to make the same rate of progress as their more privileged peers.

        • Nick Faber says:

          December 17, 2013 at 9:56 am

          Not only during the summer, but after school.  We had an after school program that was closely tied to our academic program that met with students Monday through Thursday.  We also had a tutoring program run by the Sisters of Notre Dame, the East Side Learning Center, that was housed in our building and the results they got were incredible.  Their success was partly due to being integrated into the staff, constantly being able to communicate with the teachers directly about what was happening in the classroom and to build off that.  This is something that a private vendor off site can’t match—plus the Sisters’ commitment to the community.

  • Nick Faber says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I want to come back to Joe’s question of “is this feasible?”  I know with funding issues all over it can seem as though it isn’t, but just as with pre K and Early Childhood spending, it’s an investment that pays off. 

    Community schools leverage funding.  A study of community schools initiatives and individual schools found that district dollars leverage community resources at a minimum rate of 1:3.  Those resources turn around and assist schools in meeting core instructional goals while strengthening the health, wellness and stability of their families.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 9:50 am

      And when you look at a place like Cincinnati where community schools are really taking off, you know that this is a worthwhile investment.  Graduation rates have gone from 51% to 80% and the achievement gap between white and African American students has narrowed from 14.5% to 4%

      • Andy Brown says:

        December 17, 2013 at 9:53 am

        That sounds promising, considering how we’re struggling with such a wide achievement gap. How did community schools get a foothold in Cincinnati, and how can we work toward a similar model?

        • Nick Faber says:

          December 17, 2013 at 10:05 am

          Truth be told, I don’t know the full back story on Cincinnati, but the Coalition for Community Schools and the Institute for Educational Leadership are two places that have been active in promoting the community school movement.  Their websites should have info on Cinncinnati

  • Joe says:

    December 17, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Nick, there are a number of initiatives St. Paul teachers are working hard to achieve in their conversations with the district. One deals specifically with nurses, counselors and social workers being in all schools. Walk us through the thinking behind why this is critical to achievement and learning.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 10:03 am

      Nurses particularly are critical.  Our students come in with health problems that can be serious barriers to learning.  The number one problem is asthma for many.  A licensed nurse on staff is key to helping those students not just react to asthma attacks when they occur, but to regulate and take precautions with the students to make sure they don’t occur in the first place.  Counselors and social workers help students build pro social skills that many of us take for granted that students would have.  They work with teachers on accommodating students with special needs and directly with the students themselves.  When students are dealing with trauma, as many of our students are, and they enter a middle school where they are moved from class to class of 35 or more students sometimes, they need someone like a social worker or counselor to connect with.  Currently we our out of the range of social worker and counselor to student that the state of MN recommends, so we feel it’s important to bring those ratios in line.

  • Rob says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Tell me how schooling can overcome a brain that was broken in its early years of life?  Also - incorrect usage of “myriad” - it is never “myriad of”.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 10:26 am

      Sorry I’m slow to respond Rob.  Can you say more?  I’m not sure I understand your question.  Our special ed teachers, especially our Early Childhood Spec. Ed teachers do phenomenal work connecting with some of our most needy students and their families.

    • Jean Lewandowski says:

      December 17, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      Rob, neuroscience is showing that brains are much more plastic than had been assumed until the last decade or so.  The process of learning is at its most essential the process of building physical and chemical pathways and connections in the brain.  Very few brains are “broken” so irreparably that they can’t make progress, so both ethically and empirically, it makes much more sense for our education systems to assume every child can learn than not to assume so.

  • Steve says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Since you’re working on bringing in outside services (health care, housing services, etc.) into the school, why not go all the way and make some of our school’s boarding schools.  At least the kids would have shelter, food, and structured activities.  It would give a chance for the parents to stabilize their situation.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 10:24 am

      I think it’s important that parents are kept actively involved in their child’s education through their public school years.  In a boarding school structure education becomes the sole responsibility of the school, and the fact of the matter is that parents and teachers need to partner together.  The Federation runs a project that trains teacher to do home visits with their students with the purpose of strengthening that partnership.  We firmly believe that no matter who you are in life, no matter what life has dealt you, you care about your baby AND you know things that can help me be a better teacher.  Through home visits we set up a partnership and work together to help each other in the education of their child

  • Joe says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:07 am

    Nick, when the state funded optional all day kindergarten, it freed up funds that St. Paul could use to expand access to early childhood. Tell us a little about the advantages this presents for students of low-income parents if the district chooses to use the funds for early childhood.

    • Nick Faber says:

      December 17, 2013 at 10:18 am

      Yeah, the dollars that we used in from the referendum to fund all day Kindergarten is more than enough funds to supply every student with a pre k experience.  Our district is trying to make sure that more funding priority goes to students of poverty, special ed, and non-english speaking homes, but despite that I recently talked to two parents on the East Side of St. Paul a couple weeks ago that meet those criteria and they are still on a waiting list.  The only way to ensure that ALL students get access is to guarantee it, which will take some long term planning, but will show results, just like it did for our students when we made the commitment to give every kid all day Kindergarten.

  • Nick Faber says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:13 am

    Many of our families of poverty are headed by individuals who themselves have not had positive experiences in school.  Community Schools like JAJ breaks some of that down.  When I worked there, the doors opened at 8:00 am and locked at 8:00 pm.  The school served as a hub of the community where parents could come in for a variety of services, and therefore began to build a higher degree of trust.  We also worked hard in cultivating parent leaders to serve on our site council that was doing well when site council actually made decisions about the operation of the school.  Parents felt ownership in the site.

  • Joe says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Nick, thanks for hosting the early morning session of Tuesday Talk. The conversation will continue through the day with reader comments and questions.

  • Nick Faber says:

    December 17, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Thanks everyone.  Thank you Joe and Rachel for asking me to be on this morning.  It was a great session and really went fast!  I’ll be checking back later today for any reader who are teachers or students in class right now.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    December 17, 2013 at 11:47 am

    This kind of school should be widely publicized and should be discussed with state and federal right-wing politicians who perhaps have never been exposed to Mr. Faber’s et al. approach to education.  They hear too much about those who are mere “takers” (poor people) and too little about what community schools can do to help them overcome the disadvantages dealt to them by life. 

    Many politicians are also taken in, perhaps by being exposed to the “reformers” who, rather than helping the public schools offer real learning,  hope to replace them with publicly/privately managed charters.

  • Jean Lewandowski says:

    December 17, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    I am currently serving on my local school board.  Before this, I was a special education teacher for 27 years and saw more than my share of children who came to school with chronic but treatable illnesses, toothaches, poor vision, poor nutrition, and empty tummies.  They also were prone to chronic stress because their parents were stressed about their finances.  No one is prepared to learn when they have this kind of physical and emotional load to carry.  Our school nurse and principal have been very active in seeking grants and partnerships with other agencies to help meet the basic needs of children living in poverty.  These include Northern Dental Access, St. Joseph’s Community Health, and Helmets for Kids, all of which provide basic preventative care for students who other wise would not have access to it.  A grant called Ramp Up to Readiness helps students in 6th through 12th grades learn to negotiate the scary and confusing process of preparing for life after high school, whether it is work, vocational college, or 2 or 4-year college. A great deal of time and effort are spent addressing the needs that poverty creates.  This is a lot to ask of a school, but those of us who believe that public education is a child’s best hope to break free of poverty do not see an alternative unless and until our society at large starts supporting policies that put the needs of children first.

  • William Pappas says:

    December 18, 2013 at 7:10 am

    All I can do is apply common sense solutions that logic tells us will keep kids in school more consistently, more ready and in better health.  1.  Early Childhood Education: fund it generously and make it available in low income areas.  2.  Continue to develop MNSURE through the ACA and make the medicaid option available to families.  Maintenance health care from birth will do much to improve the health of young children.  3.  Make affordable breakfast and lunch available in every school to all children.  Readiness, health and nutrition.

    • Bernice Vetsch says:

      December 18, 2013 at 9:16 am

      Or perhaps fund free lunches for all children so there is no observable difference by students of those from poor families and from those with higher incomes.