Teachers can overcome obstacles to educating children from poverty and drive students to succeed.
That was the central message Saturday during an educational workshop at Winthrop University. About 250 educators from across the state listened as Tammy Pawloski, a Francis Marion University education professor specializing in teaching low-income students, laid out a strategy and challenged teachers to step up.
"Schools can make a difference in how brains develop and in how successful children in poverty can be," she said. "We can't waste a minute."
Teaching students caught in cycles of poverty has vexed educators for years. Research has linked challenges disadvantaged children face to achievement gaps between students.
As the recession pushed more families below the poverty line, the issue has become more urgent among educators.
Statistics show poor children lack access to quality child care, books, stimulating toys, athletic leagues and private arts lessons. They're also more likely to be born premature, have low birth weight and receive poor prenatal care, Pawloski said.
They require special attention, she said. .
"When I see a teacher go ballistic because a student forgot a pencil, I'm thinking 'Can we pick another battle?'" Pawloski said. "If a child whose dad is in jail and mom is on drugs got herself up that morning and came to school, is a pencil a big deal?"
U.S. Census Bureau estimates rank South Carolina near the top of states with the highest child poverty rates. South Carolina, along with Texas, has the country's 7th-highest share of children living in poverty - 24.4 percent.
More than half of Rock Hill schools' 18,000 students receive free or reduced-price lunch - a common poverty indicator.
In Chester County schools, more than 70 percent of students meet poverty standards.
(The latest figures for Fort Mill, Clover, York and Lancaster County schools were unavailable.)
Progress in effectively teaching disadvantaged students nationwide has been slow. But bright spots emerge, which educators cite as proof that it can be done.
The Education Trust, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for underprivileged children, spotlighted several of those schools at a November conference. Four schools received the group's annual "Dispelling the Myth" award for the academic progress their poor students are making.
Last fall, Rock Hill's Belleview Elementary, where 74 percent of students come from poverty, received the state's top award for narrowing achievement gaps between white and black students.
Pawloski gave teachers 14 ways to boost success among disadvantaged students, including:
Get to know students. Build relationships that lower stress, raise self-esteem and instill a sense of hope.
Teach purposefully. There's no formula for good teaching, but a characteristic of stellar teaching is doing things on purpose.
Help students develop healthy emotional brains.
Include physical activity and the arts in lessons.
Accommodate students. If a child can't pay $5 for a field trip, find the money. "Accommodations are not special gifts," Pawloski said. "They're things we do to give kids a fair opportunity."
Hold high expectations of students.
Tammy Graham, an assistant principal at Chester Park Center of Literacy Through Technology, is familiar with those approaches.
Ninety-two percent of Chester Park students receive subsidized meals, up from about 85 percent in the 2009-10 school year.
"I try to build those relationships (with students) as an administrator," she said. "I grew up in poverty ... It's important for children in my community to know that, 'Hey Ms. Graham grew up here and she's doing wonderful things.'"
Chester Park runs after-school clubs in dance, color guard and other areas to give children a chance to take part in activities their families can't afford.
The school bought fourth-graders laptops to expose them to technology. Graham is waiting to hear if the school wins a grant to buy iPads for students.
Shortly after organizers announced Saturday's workshop, the list of attendees filled up.
"It really shows the need," said Jennie Rakestraw, dean of Winthrop's school of education.
The session fits with the college's goal of transforming teacher training.
Armed with a multimillion-dollar federal grant, Winthrop is revamping the way it prepares aspiring educators. Through its NetSCOPE initiative, the college has partnered with 22 schools across York, Chester, Lancaster, Union, Fairfield and Cherokee counties to make it happen.
Key to that effort is a focus on propelling disadvantaged children to achieve.
Aspiring teachers will embark on year-long internships, often on campuses struggling with poverty.
Want to learn more?
For details on the approaches outlined in Saturday's workshop at Winthrop University or to learn more about educating children from poverty, visit: Francis Marion University's Center of Excellence at: fmucenterofexcellence.org