Heath: Poverty is root cause of many inequalities in division

May 7, 2014

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer 

(Editor’s note: These stories are the second part of a two-part package on school equality data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The first stories, dealing with the Henry County schools, ran in Monday’s Bulletin.) 

Martinsville City Public Schools Superintendent Pam Heath urges the public “to be very careful not to presume there is somehow a purposeful inequity among races” in the school division.

She was commenting on some of the data about MCPS posted on the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) website this spring. 

“I really think the underlying issue (for many of the disparities) is poverty, and unfortunately, poverty is occurring disproportionately among our minority population,” Heath said.

“We are a high-poverty school district. A lot of people grew up poor. I’m talking about generational poverty — more than one generation has been through poverty. It sort of changes the culture,” she added. 

Students from poor families are more at risk of not experiencing success at school, Heath said. Lack of financial resources may mean children do not eat properly, which can affect brain development and lead to poor health. Poor children are more likely to have smaller vocabularies, to live in single-parent or broken homes or to be homeless, she said.

Poor children also may be less likely to have been taught accepted middle-class behaviors, and their parents may be less likely to know how to access resources that would help with their children’s educations, Heath said. 

Percentages of black students receiving in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions in MCPS were higher than the percentage of blacks enrolled in the school district in 2011-12, according to OCR data. (See related article for specifics.)

Heath said she also believes poverty is the underlying reason for that, and she wonders whether there might be duplication in some of the suspension numbers. 

OCR data indicate that 65.1 percent of city students were on free and reduced-price lunch (an indication of poverty).

OCR data showed the city schools reported no expulsions in 2011-12. 

OCR data also showed a disproportionately higher percentage of white students and a disproportionately lower percentage of black students in the gifted and talented program in 2011-12 compared with the percentages of whites and blacks enrolled in the school district.

Heath said she would have to look into that further, but one possible factor might be that some parents don’t know they can request that their children be evaluated for the gifted and talented program. Also, she said the school division has been encouraging all students to take higher level courses and the gifted and talented program might have lost some potential students as a result. 

OCR data show that of the 25 or so students retained (held back until successful completion), all in grades 9-12, they were predominately black. Heath explained that the only students MCPS retains are in high school, and it’s a matter of students having to repeat one or more classes. She also noted that the small numbers of students involved can make the racial/ethnic statistics swing widely.

The report showed that a higher percentage of whites and a lower percentage of blacks were taking at least one Advanced Placement course, compared with the percentages of whites and blacks enrolled in the school district. It showed that higher percentages of whites passed all or some AP tests, that lower percentages of blacks passed all or some AP tests, and that a lower percentage of whites and a higher percentage of blacks passed no AP tests, all compared with the percentages of whites and blacks enrolled in the school district. 

Heath wondered if there might be some duplication in the AP numbers.

Looking at the report data, she said, “a lot of things” about the city schools “are good,” which pleased her. 

For example, the division didn’t have any preschool suspensions or expulsions, and the school division doesn’t use corporal punishment, she said. Also, she said, “We don’t use zero-tolerance policies because they backfire and don’t have intended results.”

“Some of the practices mentioned in other places are truly bad. We don’t use those things,” she said. For example, OCR data showed MCPS had no incidents of mechanical or physical restraints or seclusion of students. 

Heath said she was glad to see there were higher percentages of black students taking chemistry, physics and the SAT/ACT compared with the overall percentage of blacks enrolled in the school district.

“It speaks toward having high expectations for all our students,” she said. 

The percentages of blacks enrolled in and passing Algebra I in seventh or eighth grade also were higher than the percentage of blacks enrolled in the district.

MCPS’ average teacher salary was $42,911, according to the OCR report. Heath said that according to the Virginia Education Association, the average teacher salary in Virginia in 2011 was $51,541. Heath said MCPS has to compete when hiring teachers. 

She said (at 96.3 percent in 2011-12) the school division is moving closer to having 100 percent of its classroom teachers meet all state licensing and certification requirements to be fully in compliance with Virginia Standards of Quality. 


Select News Year: