Education Funding: When Poverty Eats Your Homework

When Oklahoma teachers went on strike on April 2nd, 2018, despite an unexpected $6,100 pay raise from legislators, their message was clear: this is about far more than a raise; we need to fund our schools. Almost four weeks later, Colorado teachers led their own march on the capitol in Denver. While technically a walkout, and not a strike, many Colorado teachers still took unpaid leave to show up at Civic Center Park on that Friday.

Despite the personal costs, hundreds of teachers marched for reasons that were boldly printed on cardboard, poster-board and even creative props (“This is the last straw”). Signs proclaiming, “Education Not Incarceration” made it clear these teachers are primarily worried about the future of their students and the communities they live in. That concern is especially prevalent for the large number of students coming from low-income families or others who are currently homeless.

Students in low-income families are less likely to have books in the home, working Wi-Fi, and supplies necessary for the classroom. When school funding falls behind, it becomes more difficult to provide quality resources for students who lack them at home. Teachers we spoke to at the walkout said the effects of that are immediate – for both the student and the rest of the classroom. “You hear, ’I didn’t do my homework, because I didn’t have the access to [the internet].’ And immediately they’re behind the rest of the class,” explains Jim Dollaghan, a high school teacher in Douglas County. “You stop what you’re doing and catch those kids up,” but it takes its toll. The student may not get the same amount of time to familiarize themselves with the material and feel embarrassed when they can’t participate in class discussions as a result.

And in many underfunded school districts, class sizes inch upwards of 35 students, making it difficult for teachers to pay extra attention to the student who needs extra support – further exacerbating the problem for low-income and homeless students. “I was just talking with another teacher who has 7th grade students reading at a 3rd and 4th grade level. You cannot close a 3-4 gap in one year,” says Jamie Carroll, a teacher in Littleton. “And they’re aware of the gap between themselves and other students,” which can be demoralizing. “For sure, we can see that impact in testing,” explains Dollaghan, “but when you see the self-esteem of a young student just start to crash, because they don’t know the answer, they haven’t done the homework, or they haven’t been able to participate in a classroom discussion – you just start losing these kids.” Carroll nodded alongside him.

Historically, students with limited resources at home depended on resources in the classroom, but limited funding has left classrooms lacking. “I have this sign,” says Carroll, displaying her “Apples don’t buy textbooks” placard, “Because I have a classroom of 27 kids and we have 15 social studies textbooks. And we have kids who can’t access the online textbook at home.” Teachers are known for using their personal funds to cover needed supplies, but with low teacher salaries and the inability to deduct those expenses due to the new tax law, that’s becoming unrealistic.

The dangers for students who fall through the cracks are high. “They run the risk of ending up in gangs, homelessness, dependent on the system, or may not seek higher education,” says St. Vrain Valley Education Association board member, Susie Hidalgo-Fahring. She is also a teacher at a Title I school and sits on the Equity Council of the Colorado Education Association. “We educate communities on the risk of the school to prison pipeline – even in the small communities.”

Recognizing the importance of helping children at an early age, Volunteers of America has operated a Head Start program since 2001 and officially opened its brand new Early Childhood Education Center in 2015. The Early Childhood Education Center is unique – all the families are at or below the poverty line. Therefore, it’s distinctively designed to address the needs of low-income families – even those experiencing homelessness.

Families at or below the poverty line can experience a lot of uncertainty and inconsistency; they may have high stress, difficulty accessing nutritious meals, or trouble finding a place to sleep at night. All of these factors threaten a child’s brain development and may require special attention in the classroom.

At the Early Childhood Education Center, the staff strives to serve the whole family, not just the student. A team of family service workers partner with the parents to set goals, address stressors at home, and improve the students’ development. They offer parenting classes that cover child development and growth, parental stressors, and common behavioral challenges to increase parent protective factors and reduce child abuse and neglect. There’s even a program called Cooking Matters which teaches parents how to shop for healthy foods on a limited budget and cook them in a way the whole family will enjoy.

The approach is comprehensive, recognizing the roles healthcare, housing and parental employment play in a child’s wellbeing. The school nurse even works to ensure all the families have health insurance coverage and establish a “medical home” for the family (a consistent team of physicians who get to know the family’s history and needs) to avoid ER visits and better monitor a child’s development and growth for concerns, ensuring quality medical care.

In addition to family service workers, Volunteers of America’s Early Childhood Education Center partners with other organizations in the community to offer professional services to promote the wellbeing of the students in-house. Occupational therapists help build students’ fine-motor skills and sensory processing – helping hyperactive children focus and sluggish children get excited about the material. They also have physical therapy, speech therapy, cognitive therapy, and an in-house psychologist. Nutrition is also a big focus; the average student receives 50% of their daily nutritional intake at school. For students in low-income families, that number may be closer to 80%, -- meaning these in-school meals are vital.

But the Center can only serve 85 students and their families a year, and the demand is high. Consequently, Volunteers of America has found other ways to help low-income and homeless students across the state of Colorado throughout the past 40 years. Volunteers of America’s Retired Senior Volunteer Program and Foster Grandparent Program, both funded by the National Corporation for Community Service, places seniors with students in educational facilities to work on reading literacy and basic mathematical skills. Roughly 100 volunteers in those programs aid teachers overwhelmed by large class sizes and students needing extra attention.

Aside from teacher aides, many districts are struggling to provide basic supplies. To address this issue and prevent teachers from draining their personal funds, 9News and Volunteers of America partnered over 15 years ago to “Stuff the Bus!” for the Annual “Stuff for Students” school supplies drive. Today the drive has grown to include King Soopers, Dove Valley: Denver Broncos Training Camp, Larry H. Miller auto dealerships, and Bright Horizons Preschools as collection sites. Last year, over 11 school districts surrounding the Denver Metro Area received over $30,000 in donated school supplies as a result of the drive.

While these programs and events don’t solve the state’s education funding problems, Volunteers of America continues to strive towards improved equity in education so that every student has an opportunity to succeed. To support Volunteers of America and it’s programs, visit