Apodaca: The needy need a real gift – education

Every Christmas I take time to remember my parents. They came from vastly different backgrounds: Dad had a hardscrabble upbringing in the dusty Southwest, while Mom was a frail, bookish New York City girl.

Yet these opposites forged a partnership that lasted more than 40 years. Despite their differences they were kindred spirits when it came to the essential stuff. And what mattered to them, perhaps more than anything, was education.

My parents fervently believed in the power of a good education and they suffused my early years with that commitment. What I chose to do with my life was entirely up to me, but they were intent on giving me the foundation I'd need to have abundant opportunities. It is the greatest gift they ever gave me, and one that, hopefully, I've passed on to my own children.

But each Christmas I am also reminded that many families aren't so fortunate. Many of us give to the needy this time of year. We donate toys and sweaters, gift cards and food. Yet how do we give the gift of greatest value, the gift that lasts a lifetime and is the surest way to raise anyone's standard of living?

How do we ensure that every kid gets a good education?

There are so many pressing issues in education today. We are faced with ongoing budgeting worries, even as the economy improves, and for the first time in many years, more funding is available to schools. We struggle to meld technology with education, to adequately support teachers and then hold them accountableand to fairly gauge student progress.

But the biggest enemy of quality education, the most fundamental, overarching problem is poverty.

Poverty is the No. 1 reason we see vast disparities in educational outcomes. It is the difference between one school appearing successful and another being considered broken. It is the dividing line between high achievers and those who struggle for merely a passing grade. It is the most reliable determinant of educational failure.

This month, alarms were raised once again when the results of standardized international tests were released and the average scores of U.S. students were unimpressive compared to other industrialized countries. The reaction to the news ranged from the hysterical to reasoned, detailed analysis.

Whatever one's take on such findings, the one point that is universally acknowledged is that disadvantaged students, regardless of where they live, score considerably worse on such tests overall than those from economically stable homes. And the United States has a larger percentage of disadvantaged students than many of the countries that consistently score better on standardized tests.

Newport-Mesa could offer a case study in the huge gap between affluence and poverty. Some of our public schools are located in one of the wealthiest communities in the nation, and not surprisingly everything from test scores to graduation rates at those schools are excellent. Yet just a few miles away schools struggle amid pockets of economic distress.

Consider this: A shocking 34% of Newport-Mesa students do not have permanent housing. They are temporarily housed with other families or are homeless.

Jane Garland, Newport-Mesa Unified's director of outreach and advocacy programs, witnesses firsthand the hardships these children face. She sees situations with families living in motels or where two, three and sometimes even four families live in a house or apartment together, with several people sharing each bedroom.

"They sleep on couches or the floor, waking up many times in hunger," she said. "There's no desk, no computer, no quiet space" and the parents often lack the educational background or language skills to help their kids with assignments.

Gov. Jerry Brown has attempted to address the problem with a new law that gives extra money to districts with higher concentrations of disadvantaged students. The measure has stirred intense criticism that many poor kids are being shortchanged because their districts don't meet the threshold to qualify for the funds. Some are also crying foul over the cumbersome income-verification process.

Even if the funding change helps some students, however, the impact would likely be limited. Indeed, the problem of childhood poverty has actually grown worse in recent years, yet somehow the necessary outrage and motivation to find comprehensive, lasting solutions has been absent.

As a nation sleeps, more evidence accumulates about poverty's insidious effects. Just last week a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed that by age 4, children from impoverished families lagged in two key areas of brain development critical for processing information and executing actions. Sitting still, paying attention and absorbing lessons are more difficult for these kids. They're behind before they even start school.

They can catch up, the researchers noted. But only if they are given a secure, enriching and consistently stimulating environment at home as well as in school. Only if they are adequately fed, don't have to move repeatedly and don't live in fear.

My Christmas wish is that every child be given the same wonderful gift of a quality education that my parents were so passionate about giving me. Perhaps it's a foolish, quixotic dream. But if Christmas is truly a time for miracles, perhaps it's just possible that we can muster the resolve to realize that dream for our neediest kids.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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