By Lena Horn
Affordable health care, ample food, pre-school, homework help, and transportation are givens for many families, but for those who do not have all these advantages, the children often pay the cost academically. Many schools do not have the financial resources to provide programs and services to tackle these needs. But without them, expect increased absenteeism, behavior issues, and lower grades. One Loudoun-based school principal, Jennifer Scott of Sterling Elementary, is well aware of these challenges and is looking for ways to address her student’s needs. Close to half of the children at Sterling Elementary are on the free or reduced lunch program, a general indicator of overall need. 100WomenStrong members recently met with Principal Scott, and parent liaison, Diana Dorman to discuss the school’s state. The main question: What are their most critical needs? Suzy Quinn, Inova Loudoun Hospital Foundation’s executive director joined the meeting to see how Mobile Health could help. And Mary Frances Forcier, communications manager of Loudoun County Public Library came prepared to discuss literacy services. Principal Scott identified reducing the achievement gap as one of their most pressing needs.Having a full belly – which the free and reduced lunch program provides during the week – greatly improves energy and attentiveness of students. And thanks to the generosity of a local sponsor, PalmerCare Chiropractic, and a matching donation from 100WomenStrong, families at Sterling Elementary are getting food for the weekends through the LCPS Backpack Coalition. But there is much more needed for these children to catch up with other students. Early on, this means pre-school. Children who don’t attend pre-school tend to have distinct disadvantages as incoming kindergarteners. Many have not acquired necessary school readiness skills. In addition, some parents may not speak English or are illiterate and thus unable to help their children to read.Another problem is a lack of health insurance. While the school provides basic vision screenings for kindergarteners and 3rd graders, parents may not have the funds to follow up with an optometrist or pay for the required glasses. Vision can also change quickly in young children; ideally they should get their eyes checked annually. This further hinders children from keeping up academically as they may not be able to read the board, take accurate notes, or be able to read a book properly. At the critical age when children first learn to read, catching these issues early can have positive long term effects, resulting in a child being able to catch up. Otherwise, they can struggle academically for years. Typically, both parents of children who attend Sterling Elementary work. Once the school day ends, many children of these families walk home with a younger sibling in tow where they don’t have access to homework help. After school programs such as the YMCA and CASA (County After School Activities) provide a well-rounded agenda of homework help, a snack, physical activities, and reading time. While the YMCA offers an after-school program at Sterling Elementary, some parents cannot afford to send their child or children. Transportation can be an issue as children must be picked up by 6 pm each evening, when parents may be working a second job.
Is there a way to address all these issues facing schools like Sterling Elementary? What can our community do to close the achievement gap in schools that need help?