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Reports links poverty to school performance in Georgia
Kindergarten students load buses parked at White Sulphur Elementary School. - photo by Scott Rogers

Some 70 percent of Georgia school district leaders say poverty is the most significant out-of-school issue that limits student learning, according to a recent report from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

That’s a view shared by local school leaders.

“Without a doubt, the most powerful predictors of academic achievement occur outside of the schoolhouse,” Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. “Poverty is the most reliable predictor of these challenges.”

The GBPI report details a strong correlation between poverty and student achievement.

For example, 99 percent of schools with extreme poverty are likely to earn a D or F with the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, which measures performance on state tests, graduation rates and other criteria. That figure drops to just 5 percent for schools with low poverty.

“Challenges of poverty are most difficult to overcome in schools where students from low-income households are the majority,” the report states. “Most schools where at least half of students come from low-income families received a D or F from the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.”

Both the Hall County School District and Gainesville City Schools System received a C on the latest Office of Student Achievement grading.

About 14 percent of the population of Hall County lives below the poverty line, while that figure is nearly 30 percent in the Gainesville city limits.

“We recognize that some of the challenges of living in poverty can certainly impact a student’s readiness to learn,” said Sarah Bell, chief academic officer for Gainesville City Schools. “Whether challenges are caused by a lack of access to books in the home or mental health issues due to the stress of living in poverty, it is incumbent on us to find innovative ways to help our students reach their full potential.”

Bell added, “it is the belief of the Gainesville City School System that all students have the ability to achieve academically” regardless of whether they come from low-income households.

Doing more to compensate for high-poverty school districts — such as Gainesville, where nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to census figures — will produce a stronger workforce in the future, the GBPI report states.

Critical areas in need of improvement, according to the report, include expanding family support programs, better instruction, adequate and accessible health services and nutrition, and safe, affordable housing.

“We believe that it is critical to support our students who come from households in poverty because the bottom line is that we can have the finest instructional program in the world, but it will not matter if it is not accessible to our students,” Bell said.

With this in mind, Gainesville Schools work to provide wraparound services for students from low-income households.

“Our school social workers are invaluable assets in these efforts,” Bell said. “They connect families to necessary services, help provide food and clothing when needed, and even go as far as helping displaced families move when situations arise.”

But there are other needs, too, particularly in Hall County where a large first-generation immigrant community exists.

“In fact, births to age 5 experiences are the most profound and produce a lifelong trajectory, which takes Herculean efforts to change,” Schofield said. “However, other influences such as English language ability and transiency carry high correlations regarding student achievement."