Editor’s note: Since September 2015, Worcester Sun has chronicled the trials and triumphs of Sun contributor Giselle Rivera-Flores as she explores ways to help her daughter and other Worcester families find affordable educational support and assistance. We used to describe her as an aspiring business owner; now, she’s an inspiring one. During her journey to establish and grow her nonprofit tutoring collaborative she has, you could say, stepped beyond the walls of her dream.
The gap between rich and the poor affects all aspects of American life. While it should never impact a child’s chance to receive a good education, there remains an obvious schism at the center of many a school-related controversy.
A pronounced funding rift is often cited as the main reason behind failing or underperforming schools, and more and more seems to be among the top determinants — along with parent engagement, which also lags in lower-income areas — of whether a child will excel in school or fall into the cracks of the nation’s achievement gap.
Founding The Learning Hub was an attempt to break through the barriers of financial disadvantages and shine a light on a group of students in inner cities that otherwise lack key supportive academic services.
From personal experience, I learned higher-income cities and towns equal more academic support services and better schools, while low-income towns and cities like Worcester consistently lack similar supports and struggling students are shuffled up through the ranks of what I see as a failing school system.
Last August, The Atlantic published, “Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School,” and it remains one of my consistent motivators since launching The Hub. The article looks at the state of Connecticut and breaks down the school system based on location. It ultimately leads to an unsurprising finding: schools in better neighborhoods receive better access to wraparound services while schools in poor neighborhoods are left wanting.
Read Giselle’s previous chapter, The look of leadership, or scroll down to explore more of her story.
“While students in higher-income towns such as Greenwich and Darien have easy access to guidance counselors, school psychologists, personal laptops, and up-to-date textbooks, those in high-poverty areas like Bridgeport and New Britain don’t,” the article reads. “Such districts tend to have more students in need of extra help, and yet they have fewer guidance counselors, tutors, and psychologists, lower-paid teachers, more dilapidated facilities and bigger class sizes than wealthier districts, according to an ongoing lawsuit. Greenwich spends $6,000 more per pupil per year than Bridgeport does, according to the State Department of Education.”
While the article focuses on Connecticut, this is a problem across the nation.
Each state deals with the same inequalities and students continuously face the same challenges. With a naïve and optimistic outlook, I saw The Learning Hub as a program of hope. I saw the potential for students to receive additional help at no cost to their families by utilizing the local libraries – a free resource center in every community.
Fast forward to a year later, and I am beginning to understand that the problems are deeper than income discrepancies.
The biggest hurdle for The Learning Hub, surprisingly to us at first, has been the inability to make deals with inner-city and low-income libraries (besides Worcester) to adopt our programming — and not because of lack of funding.
While that is certainly still an issue, the main reason library officials cite is the notion that students would not be interested in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) programming.
The terms STEAM and STEM have become stigmatized within low-income neighborhoods. It is deemed a luxury and not a necessity, and has been looked at as a program only fit for students in better schools.
After we initially launched in Worcester, I thought other inner-cities would be just as open to the idea as the Worcester Public Library. I was wrong.
When reviewing the Hub’s upcoming fall schedule, it’s easy to see we must do a better job with approaching inner-city libraries and less-affluent small-town community libraries. Our tentative schedule comprises the following libraries: Wayland Free Public Library, Lincoln Public Library, Sherborn Library, Needham Free Public Library, Morse Institute Library in Natick and Worcester Public Library.
That’s five towns with money — and Worcester.
These libraries have given us the upper hand when pitching to new libraries in other affluent towns, but when we mention these programs in more financially challenged locales like Webster or Spencer, we are immediately tuned out.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do. Lower spending can irreparably damage a child’s future, especially for kids in poor families. A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for poor children can lead to an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
With all the statistics mounted against low-income neighborhoods, you would think programs like The Learning Hub would excel there. But there is a disconnect between the understanding of what such programs can offer students and how they are perceived by families in low-income areas.
Recently we launched our partnership with C.C. Lowell – we have yet to fill a class. With more in-depth programming offered at C.C. Lowell, we thought it would be an instant hit. Located on Pleasant Street – which runs from one of the most forgotten neighborhoods in the city to one of its most well-heeled – we assumed families would flock to the program, especially if they were unable to make it to the Worcester Public Library on Mondays.
That has not been the case.
While I understand that all things take time, I believe that The Learning Hub cannot just wait to gain traction. We must be out in the low-income areas educating families and parents about our services and how they are supplemental, if not independently better, to the education received in the Worcester Public Schools.
Academic support services are needed to balance the inequalities our students face because of financial discrepancies. If students are not receiving a proper education in our school system, then they should have the option to obtain proper education through additional resources – at no cost.
The battle is too deep for one program to take on, but we will continue to revise and study our demographic to enhance our services and ensure we reach the students who need us the most.
Follow Giselle’s inspiring story from the beginning: