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Special Report: Poverty's shadow over education

Special Report: Poverty's shadow over education

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BRISTOL - It’s 7:45 a.m., and Bus 81 pulls up to the back entrance of Highland View Elementary School.

First-grade teacher Anna Campbell is on duty at the back door, keeping an eye on every child who steps off the bus and into the gymnasium of the aging, 81-year-old building.

Walkie-talkie in hand, Principal Pam Smith is at the front door taking the same inventory of the children as they enter, dispensing hugs to those who come up to her but also looking for signs that all is not well with others.

Whose clothes are dirty? Who is smiling, and who is wiping tears? Who looks tired, or hungry? Who is sick? Who is hurt?

Monday morning is the most challenging time of the week at Highland View. It’s been two days since the children last were in the building, and teachers and administrators have grown to expect that their kids will bring more to school than their backpacks — especially hunger.

More than 99 percent of students qualify for a free breakfast and lunch, and staff members know from experience that many probably haven’t eaten a real meal since Friday.

According to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, more than 40 percent of Virginia’s K-12 students live in poverty — a 45 percent increase over the past 10 years. Bristol’s poverty rate is nearly twice the state average, and the 188 children who attend Highland View come from its most economically deprived neighborhoods, where many families struggle daily with unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse and health issues.

While children agitate anxiously to go to the cafeteria to eat, Campbell spots a quiet, 4-year-old preschool girl who arrives with nothing, dressed in threadbare clothes that resemble pajamas. The teacher bends down to change her shoes, which were on the wrong feet.

“She probably dressed herself this morning,” Campbell says.

Minutes later, an older boy sidles up to the teacher, rubbing his head. He tells her that his mother got angry and banged his head into a wall. She feels a small knot under a mop of hair. A call will be made later to the Department of Social Services — there were 88 placed from Highland View last year.

Every day, there also are children who don’t show up. With the Tennessee border less than 2 miles away, some families move back and forth across the state line, seeking refuge from landlords and shut-off utilities, or chasing another state’s set of benefits contributing to another startling fact of life at the school:

Thirty-five percent of students who start out at Highland View will not finish the school year at Highland View.

Other absences are more troublesome.

Kindergarten teacher Aley Kistner recalled begging one boy to come to school after he had been absent the previous day.

“I said, ‘I need you here,’ ” Kistner recounted.

“He said, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Kistner. Mama had a needle in her arm, and I just couldn’t get here.’ ”


“It’s a shock to the system,” said Bristol Superintendent Rex Gearheart, who came to the Southwest Virginia school district in 2010 after working in Bedford, Radford City and Giles County. “The same values are not always in place.”

“It tears your heart out,” said Smith, a career educator who has worked in Bristol since 2003 and who took over as Highland View principal three years ago. “There are some stories that keep you up all night.”

The challenges faced at Highland View — abuse, neglect, nutrition, wellness — cross regional and ethnic boundaries. Four out of five students at the school are white, and their circumstances are no different from schools in impoverished and at-risk urban areas throughout Virginia.

Gearheart said the city of Bristol ranks eighth among Virginia’s 132 districts in terms of need and that Petersburg is the poorest district.

“We see it in Richmond, we see it in Northern Virginia, we see it in Hampton Roads,” said first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, who has leveraged her unofficial role in state government to advocate for state and federal funds to combat childhood hunger through school breakfast and other feeding programs.

“All of that means stress for these children,” said McAuliffe, who visited Highland View during a tour of Southwest Virginia last month. “It’s a Virginia issue.”

Despite the stress, last year Highland View accomplished something that 556 other at-risk schools in the state did not.

For the first time since 2011, it earned full accreditation from the state Department of Education. More than 70 percent of its students passed the Standards of Learning exams in math, science and history, and 75 percent cleared the benchmark in English.

“They moved the needle in a big way in terms of progress for their children,” McAuliffe said.

This year, Highland View is attempting to repeat the feat, even as it has lost a teaching position to budget cuts. Staff continues to labor under the fear of closure as district officials hope for increased funding from a cash-strapped city that relies heavily on state funding to educate its children and spent 11 percent less in per-student operational spending last year than it did 10 years ago.

But the model for Highland View’s success suggests that it takes more than textbooks and teaching to meet its educational needs and give its children a chance at a brighter future.

“The school is their counselor, their doctor, their cook, their nutritionist, their mother,” Smith said. “We’re their family.”


I pledge today to do my best

In reading, math and all the rest.

I promise to obey the rules

In my class and in the school.

I’ll respect myself and others, too.

I’ll expect the best in all I do.

I’m here to learn all I can,

To try my best and be all I am.

Highland View School pledge

The first order of business in Highland View’s school day is not books but biscuits, followed by tennis.

“They have to eat, and those brains need to take in oxygen and glucose to be awake and function,” said Smith, explaining the role of the breakfast program and an early morning running club, in which several dozen children arrive at 7:15 and run laps around the school grounds.

For those unable to participate or arrive early, the principal uses her morning announcement as part pep talk, part aerobics class. Smith tells pupils that school is their job and grades are their paycheck — and they have to earn that paycheck.

“Ka-ching!” the students say in unison in class, with a fist pump.

There is no money for tennis rackets at Highland View, but Smith asks students to get up from their desks and imagine that they are playing in the U.S. Open, smashing serves and working on their forehand and backhand returns.

“You are awesome!” she tells them over the intercom. The boys and girls, say, “I am awesome!”

The halls are empty, save for the open cubbies and hooks outside classrooms where the children hang their backpacks, toting dreams of Disney princesses and Marvel superheroes. A row of student pictures runs the length of the cubbies.

Smith, a coal miner’s daughter from Russell County, is Highland View’s indefatigable advocate. She knows the story behind every face — and most reflect the stark difference between a real and an imagined life.

She goes down the line of photos in response to a reporter’s request.

“Couch-surfing — homeless,” she says of one child, referring to the practice of sleeping on couches in different homes.

“Vision- and hearing-disabled. Grandmother raising them. Trauma in the home. Homeless, doubled-up. Gifted. Two parents. Single mother. Daddy home from Afghanistan — PTSD,” she says, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Trouble outside the classroom presents challenges inside the classroom. That’s why the school has a table set up at the bend of one hall where children who are suffering some form of stress — physical, emotional, or both — can receive attention from a counselor who can help them assimilate back into a learning environment.

Meeting basic needs — calming children down and feeding them enough to settle down to learn — is perhaps the biggest academic challenge at Highland View and similar schools that serve large populations of at-risk children. The school’s pre-K program is considered critical to its mission.

“You need a lot of preparation to get ready for school,” says pre-K teacher Lori Ayers. “A lot of children come into pre-K without being self-regulated. They have not had the opportunity to sit still and just listen and learn how to follow instructions.”

Administrators and faculty at the school say they have a limited amount of time to make progress for children who come to school with a learning deficit. Officials say one-third of the students at Highland View are one or more grade levels below in math and reading when they enter school.

“If we are not on grade level by the end of third grade, then they are going to struggle for the rest of their lives,” Smith says.


Pretzels prove an effective teaching aid for Shannon Bradley’s lesson on synonyms.

“How is ‘precise’ and ‘delicate’ the same thing?” she asks, looking for her classroom of fourth-graders to volunteer another word from a group of choices.

“Don’t guess,” she warns. “You’ve got to know it when I call on you.”

“Fragile!” says a boy in the back row with his hand up, earning the pretzel Bradley holds in her hand.

Bradley and fellow teacher Paula Baskin’s jobs got more difficult this year. Budget cuts cost them a teaching position for the fifth grade, leaving the two teachers the task of teaching three classes spread over two grades.

They approach their challenge from a simple place.

“Being a mom to the kids in my classroom,” said Bradley, who also has a young son at Highland View. “I tell my parents that I treat my students just like my own kids. I am a mother before I am a teacher. That’s the biggest thing.”

After a while, the kids catch on and the parents follow. “When they figure out we’re in their corner, we get them on our side,” Baskin said.

“It’s about making some kind of connection. Once that connection is made, there’s a change in demeanor toward you.”

Parents at Highland View appreciate the support.

“This is a family to me,” said Chantell Jones, 34, a mother of five whose four daughters attend Highland View. “They respect and know every student in this school. It’s not like this is just a paycheck to them.”

For Ashley Moore, support meant putting her in touch with resources to help her family find another place to live after visitors brought bedbug-infested belongings into their home.

“They don’t single kids out,” said Moore, who has three young children at the school. “I was singled out when I was a kid, and I was afraid my kids would get singled out, but they love school.”

Mary Morris, a grandmother who is raising her daughter’s three children, is head of the Highland View PTA. A recent PTA dinner attracted only eight families, but she said school staff members serve as parents to all the children. “There’s no judgment — ever,” she said. “They want these kids to beat the odds.”


By necessity, meeting Highland View’s many needs is a community endeavor, relying on an array of social services agencies, nonprofit charities, community organizations, churches and local businesses.

The district works closely with a nonprofit group, Communities In Schools, to assist families in obtaining a wide range of essentials, from housing and clothing to food, school supplies and transportation.

“A large percentage of our students and families face generational poverty,” said Carrie Goss, Highland View’s CIS coordinator, who sold her medical billing business to work with the group.

“People have a misguided belief about poverty — how people got there and how easy it is to get out of it.”

The groups that support Highland View reserve judgment and blame in order to focus on food, clothing and health care.

Kindergarten cubbies were donated by the local Home Depot, which helped restore part of the school’s aging playground. O’Reilly Auto Parts donated $800 to fund snacks for the after-school program.

The local Kiwanis Club does free vision screening for students and for the past two years has donated 100 pairs of shoes to children in need. “We have a lot of toes popping out,” Smith said.

Appalachian Sustainable Development took children to the farmers market and subsidized purchases of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Last summer, Campbell and teachers Meghan Groves and Sara DeBusk gathered donations of 1,000 books to start a “Books for Bearcats” summer reading program that helped students retain comprehension skills.

“So many businesses donate things,” Smith said. “Most people around us believe in a community-centered school, because once upon a time, schools were the center of the community.”

Smith and Morris also are known to attend Bristol High School football games and sell boxes of doughnuts to raise school funds. The latest effort is to buy a slide for the school playground.

Every other Friday, thanks to Central Presbyterian Church and Chilhowie Christian Church, 80 children go home with a “snack pack” — a bag of groceries to help bridge the nutritional gap for the children while they are away from the school and the regular meals it provides.

Last February, when a snowstorm closed Bristol schools for days, Bristol School Board member Randy White piled the packs into his car and hand-delivered them to children’s homes.

Smith said the need for the snack packs probably is closer to 100 families each week. School officials also worry that in some cases, the food gets bartered or exchanged to buy cigarettes or drugs, or is consumed by others in the home, where sometimes more than one family is living “doubled up.”

Goss said housing conditions are a big concern for the student population at the school, which must teach children who often get little sleep because they are sleeping on the floor, or on couches in different homes.

She recalled a boy who was coming to school having not washed because the bathroom of the home in which he was staying was being used as a litter box.


Kacy Wilkinson sees it all in her job as school nurse for Highland View. She used to work in emergency medicine. The school, she says, “is a little miniature ER.”

While the school has funding only for a part-time nurse, last year there were 800 visits to her office — a tiny space no bigger than a walk-in closet tucked behind the stage in the gymnasium.

Among the problems she sees is encopresis — a condition caused by resisting the need to go to the bathroom. Wilkinson said it occurs more frequently in doubled-up homes where children are told not to use the bathroom at night.

“We like to think of most kids getting up in the morning, eating breakfast, being loved and clothed and sent off to school — but that’s not always the case,” she said.

While there is neglect, Wilkinson said, in other cases parents simply don’t know how to care for their children, or can’t afford to do so. She mentions a boy who had two abscesses on his teeth diagnosed during a Virginia Department of Health screening last March, who had not yet received treatment.

Once the children step into school, however, “they become yours,” she said. “Every one of these kids.”

Highland View is more than a job to Wilkinson, like others who work at the school.

“I was led here,” she said, becoming emotional. “Everybody has a goal here — keep them healthy and do whatever we can. When these kids hurt, I hurt.

“I’ve never worked with a group of people so dedicated to making sure the kids are not hungry, make sure they’re safe, make sure their clothes fit.”

As she spoke, a washer-dryer hummed away in a nearby storage room that doubles as a teachers lounge. The machine is in constant use by Highland View staff members, who have assembled a makeshift wardrobe of clothing donations so they can offer clean clothes to children who arrive dirty or in ill-fitting garments borrowed from a sibling or parent.

Staff members wash the child’s existing garments so they have something clean to wear the next day. The dryer is key; Smith said the high-heat setting allows them to kill any lice that teachers find on students’ clothing.

The work takes a toll on the staff.

“Not everybody can teach here,” said Baskin, a mother with grown children. “It’s not a job — it’s a calling.”

“They’re smart kids,” she continued. “They want to love somebody, but really they want somebody to love them.”

Bradley recalled a former student who left school and later, as a ninth-grader, took his own life.

“Did I tell him enough? Did I show him enough?” she said, tears welling in her eyes. “Did he know I was in his corner?”


The story goes that over at the middle school, the biology teacher had purchased hatch kits for a lesson on the life cycle of the butterfly but was having no success. Highland View didn’t have the money, so Campbell went out and cut down a stalk of milkweed, put it in a jar of water and brought it back to her first-grade class.

On a recent day, one of her students pointed to two chrysalises that had formed on the stem. In a few days, he excitedly told a visitor, a monarch butterfly would hatch. When that happens, Smith said the class holds a ceremony, in which they release the butterfly.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said.

Unlike the butterfly experiment, however, Highland View makes an effort to hold onto students as long as possible — at least during the school day.

With the help of a grant, Highland View runs an after-school program until 5 p.m., where children can get help with math and reading enrichment, more exercise, and more food. “We try to feed them all day,” Smith said.

An extended school year grant awarded by Gov. Terry McAuliffe also will allow Highland View to operate during part of the coming Christmas break and during part of the summer months. That would increase the time for learning and the amount of time the children can be in an environment where teachers know the kids will be fed, supervised and safe.

A.P. Hill Elementary school in Petersburg started the program last August and saw a 22-point gain in English and a 29-point gain in math on year-end SOL tests.

Even when students are out of sight, they are not out of mind. That’s the hardest part, said Kistner, an energetic teacher and mother who calls her kindergarten students “my babies.”

“It’s knowing something is going on, it’s been reported, and you still have to send these kids back home,” she said, becoming flushed. “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Teachers are proud of their students’ testing achievement, but the focus at Highland View is on the bigger picture.

“SOL test scores are a bunch of B.S.,” Bradley said. “These kids are more than a score to me. They are way more than a score.”

The children also have different goals. At the end of the school year, each fifth-grader completes an “I Am” book — a journal of sorts that provides space for children to answer formulaic questions about their hopes and dreams, and how they view themselves and the world around them.

“I worry about people without a home,” wrote Solomon Anthony McKenley.

“I hope my parents will get back together soon,” wrote Madison Lynn Almany.

“I feel that I can get what I want if I work hard,” wrote Mariana Nicole Garcia.

“I feel safe when I’m with Mrs. Bradley,” wrote Aubrey Shyann Hubbard.

“I am a kid who can be anything,” wrote Shawn Allen Drust.


Becoming something is not easy in a place like Bristol, which has not seen the level of economic recovery witnessed in some other parts of Virginia.

Less than a mile from the school, the Ball Corp. jar plant is set to close by the end of the year, meaning the loss of more jobs.

Budget constraints forced the school district to trim 46 jobs over the past two years, including 12.5 teacher positions. Gearheart is hoping the city will find the money to match a grant awarded to Bristol and other needy districts to fund school resource officers.

“People realize there is a need but it’s meeting that need,” that’s the challenge, said City Councilman Bill Hartley, who sends two children to Highland View. “We are working to make our city much more financially stable ... but any help we can get at the state level helps as well for the localities.”

Highland View is often mentioned as a possible target for closure, given the age of its building and its lower student numbers than other elementary schools in the district. Gearheart said the topic “is always on the table,” but said so much has been trimmed from the school’s operations already that he’s not convinced there would be substantial savings with such a move. Others see an even bigger potential loss.

“Structurally, it may be old, but everything is more fresh here than ever before,” said Bristol police officer Mike Danser, who is not officially assigned to the school but makes a point of being there almost every day to greet students, offering — and receiving high-fives from children half his size as he walks the hallways.

The coming budget cycle in Richmond and the local process in Bristol will determine the school’s future. From Dorothy McAuliffe’s perspective, funding Highland View — and the other schools in the commonwealth that are going out of their way to make children safe and teach them — is the right thing to do.

“What we need to do is support them,” she said. “It’s the leadership of these schools where the administrative team has said, ‘We know we have to deal with children as they arrive — we take these children as they are as they come in the door, and we have to be the support. We know we have to go above and beyond to make sure that they’re able to learn — that they’re able to feel loved, essentially — in order to get the job done to teach them.’

“That’s the age we live in.”

When the day comes to an end, it’s a relief of sorts to the school’s administrators and faculty, who go home exhausted to their own children, with the hope that their other children will be there the next morning.

For Smith, it has been a good day. Children line up for hugs as they head toward the bus or a pickup from parents. Both need them.

“We just want them to know they are loved here, and they are safe here,” she said. “We want school to be the best 10 hours of their day.”

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan


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