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Spring Hill ISD convocation speaker reflects on district's changing demographics

By Melissa Greene mgreene@news-journal.com
Aug. 20, 2013 at 10 p.m.

Teachers are a frontline in the war on poverty and changing demographics within Spring Hill ISD which means educators there need to be ready for battle when school begins Monday.

That was the convocation message delivered to educators Tuesday during the district's annual convocation held in the middle school auditorium.

Dr. Donna Beegle, president of Communication Across Barriers, presented a Poverty 101 workshop to help teachers communicate with economically disadvantaged children in their classrooms.

"You know your jobs, but if we don't consider the context of poverty we set them (students) up for failure," Beegle told teachers in the dimly lit auditorium.

Children entering school from a context of poverty struggle with everything from vocabulary words to an inability to understand examples on standardized tests because they are written with middle class values, she told the Spring Hill educators.

"Our kids from poverty enter our schools and we assume they know things they don't," she said. "You can't know something until someone exposes you to it in a relevant, meaningful way."

Superintendent Wes Jones said the district invited Beegle to speak because of changing demographics within the district.

"With the demographics changing, we just want to prepare our teachers to accept that and be aware of those things so they can better educate our children," Jones said.

A study by the Texas Education Agency found Spring Hill ISD experienced a 29 percent increase in the number of economically disadvantaged students in the district, increasing from 2.2 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 31.6 percent in 2011-12.

Pine Tree ISD saw a 12 percent increase while Longview ISD saw an increase of just more than two percent.

Beegle was born into a migrant family and left school at 15. She is the only member of her family who has not been jailed. At 24, she earned her GED and within 10 years had earned a doctorate degree in educational leadership. The motivational speaker has traveled the country for 23 years to assist in breaking poverty barriers. Her story has appeared on PBS and in newspapers across the country.

"The most common analogy for poverty is war, and that's what it feels like," Beegle said.

Drawing on her personal experience, she presented a vision of school from the viewpoint of a child in poverty in order to help teachers identify and address educational needs of students living in poverty.

"It's really hard to think about who is president or some algebraic equation when the lights are shut off or your mom is crying because there's no food and she's working more than one job and still can't pay the rent and utilities," Beegle said before the session. "So it not only impacts the physical and mental health of a child, but the psychological as well."

Beegle encouraged teachers to include poverty in their lesson plans, adding that she likes to have her students find out how many people in their city have their water shutoff daily after they are unable to pay the bill.

Aside from the academic benefits, she said it empowers the child who is living in poverty to see that he or she is not alone.

Teachers should also use their influence to help students, Beegle said.

"Use your title to advocate for your child in the war on poverty. People listen when you call. A person in poverty could spend a week trying to get a resolution for something you could do with one call and a title," she said.

Beegle told the crowd how a 10-year-old was repeatedly late for school and was denied breakfast while being given tardy slips and being in trouble, adding that reports indicate even a bottle of water helps a child perform better on tests.

Seven months into the school year, Beegle discovered the student was living in a pickup with his grandfather.

"There's a why behind every behavior that makes sense to the person doing it," she said. "You can't punish kids out of poverty, it won't work."

She said one district created a climate shift by changing tardy slips to say "We're so glad you're here."

In describing the years after a divorce and before entering school, Beegle said her rundown apartment was broken into five times within a few months and a hit-and-run driver damaged her car. She was living at that time on a $408 monthly welfare check, noting that in 2013 she would qualify for $478.

"It's what you put up with in the war zone of poverty, what your students put up with, then they come to you. Are you ready for them?" she asked.



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