Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bunker Hill Wolverines: Out of sight, out of mind?

The Holiday Wolverine Hunt has become a tradition at my parents Bunker Hill farm.  Although my sons and I are the only ones to have actually sighted one of these wily beasts, we lead a band of intrepid young huntsmen in a search that often turns up scat, tracks, fur, and other signs.  In keeping with our Paleolithic ancestors, we protect ourselves with rocks (sticks just make them mad) as we seek to capture a glimpse, or maybe even a photo.  Except for the 55, 24, and 21-year-old guides, our group of pursuers ranges in age from 3 to 7 and we often wander miles of pasture in our search.

Our hunt came to an unfortunate end when the five and six year old boys showed me (on my own iPad) that the wolverine habitat doesn’t go as far south as Bunker Hill Kansas and so our efforts were in vain.  Next they will be telling me there is no Santa Claus.  (I also learned that sharks don’t have a tooth fairy, but that is a different story). Kids nowadays!

So this Christmas instead of hunting wolverines, the kids staged an all day football game.  No exaggeration.  All day.  The five and six year old boys were intermittently joined by players of all ages but excepting short breaks for food and present opening, they played all day.  Some of us older folks were only good for a down or two, saving ourselves for the playoffs.  The youngest (at 3) mostly ran in circles yelling, “we are the Chiefs, we are the Chiefs.” He also insistently told my daughter “you are the Chiefs doctor” after she was called in to action when a player collided with a root cellar vent.

There were a lot of touchdowns, a few penalties (mostly called on me), some minor injuries, and one major de-cleating by a guy-wire.  If Roger Goodell thinks Tom Brady can't take a little roughing the passer, he should have seen a 6-year-old boy go head over heals after catching a cable in the chin at full speed.  It was a clothesline that would have made Fred “The Hammer” Williamson shiver.

Of course, as an educator, it wasn’t just the athletic prowess of my family members that impressed me.  It was the vocabulary.  I was struck by a three-year-old making connections between his team and medical care.  All of these kids under age six spoke clearly and had extensive vocabulary.  They were adept with technology and reason, to the point that they could discredit their uncle’s claim that wolverines roam the tundra of Russell County.  Naturally, being my relatives, these kids are all gifted.  But an objective observer might say that they are typical middle class kids, just starting or getting ready to start school.

Because of my time as an educator, I also have another frame of reference.  I know that because these kids have been read to, played with, and most of all, talked to by adults, they have a significant advantage once they hit the K-12 system. 

In a seminal study that has been often replicated, researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley looked at language exchanges between “professional”, “working class”, and “poor” children and their caregivers. They found that children learn 86-98% of their words from their parents/caregivers. (The rest, no doubt the unrepeatable ones, were learned from their uncles during Holiday football games.)  Over the four years of the study, the difference in number of words heard between children in poor and professional homes was 30 million. 

Put another way, poor children heard one third as many words as children in professional homes.  The researchers point out that there is no less love or caring in these homes, just a lot fewer words.  These words translate to a larger vocabulary, which means more early success in school.  Ask any Kindergarten teacher about what a difference this means to academic success and early literacy.

We know the effects of childhood poverty on student achievement.  Virtually every district in Kansas disaggregates their data by socio-economic status and shows a gap in achievement.  Michael Rebel and Jessica Wolff, among others, have studied this problem internationally as well.  Most recently they looked at results of the PISA and how a country’s scores correlate with childhood poverty rates.

Now if you want some really bad news, let’s look at childhood poverty rates in Kansas.  The Kansas Health Institute reports that childhood poverty rates in Kansas are at a 5 year high, with 19% of Kansas children living at or below the poverty level of $22,000 annual income for a family of four.  Free and reduced price lunch counts are at an all-time high in Kansas as well.  Even worse, Kansas’s childhood poverty rates are growing at a faster rate than all but three states in the nation.

We are faced with a choice as a state.  We have to decide first if this is OK with us.  Playing football with a bunch of smart, professional class relatives it is hard to see why I should care.  I don’t see poor children every day, struggling to learn on empty stomachs.  Like Bunker Hill wolverines, out of sight, out of mind? 

That is not the Kansas that I grew up in- the one in which we helped each other in times of need.  That is not the Kansas of our ancestors, the one in which state government said no to slavery even in the face of massacres.  The one that raised taxes to build schools for the good of the whole during times of need- the dirty thirties, the fifties and sixties, and the early 90’s.  We have a history.

A baby step has been taken- a plan to fully fund all day kindergarten over five years- but this is not enough.  We have to provide quality preschool opportunities, remediation and enrichment for all students in need, and a quality education for all, the sooner, and the earlier, the better.

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