Bill Rosenberger: Education reform must include fighting poverty

March 18, 2019

As the state’s education forums begin, with the first at 6 p.m. at Cabell Midland High School, one has to wonder what the tone will be. The forums are meant to give a voice to teachers, service personnel and the public – something education leaders throughout the state said were missing when the Legislature proposed and nearly passed a massive reform bill.

Though we at United Way of the River Cities are not experts in education, we are parents, grandparents, relatives and friends to employees and children in the West Virginia public school system – meaning we care a whole lot, too.

But what we care about may differ from the comments and opinions that are sure to be expressed at these statewide forums.

At UWRC, we have been fighting for the education, health, financial stability and basic needs of every person in our communities for nearly 100 years. We, and United Way Worldwide, focus on those four pillars because deficiencies in any of those areas are almost surely tied to poverty.

Sadly, for our area and the state, poverty has become a generational epidemic that continues to grow. And far too many children are caught in the cycle.

The 2018 West Virginia Poverty Report indicated that 19 percent of the state’s nearly 1.8 million people live at or below the poverty rate. Of those, approximately 84,000 are children under the age of 18.

Among the 22 programs UWRC provides Impact and Safety Net grants to in the four West Virginia counties we serve, 11 are directly related to helping families and children living in poverty.

One of those grants is to Facing Hunger Food Bank and is used to provide more than 400 Lincoln County students with a nonperishable food each weekend and during extended holiday breaks. Kari Smith, the social worker for the county, told us the list of children in need seems to grow every year.

In Wayne County, UWRC provided a grant to the Family Resource Network to purchase hygiene supplies for students. Program director Donna Thompson said much of the need is in southern Wayne County, where a pocket of households has no running water. She said she provides Crum PreK-8 with shampoo, soap and deodorant so children can shower at school.

What the omnibus education bill didn’t do, and what we hope any new education reform does, is attempt to address the disease of poverty.

Pay raises for teachers and service personnel are well deserved. Additional funding for school counselors will help. And who knows, maybe a charter school does provide a positive alternative to a public school. But none of those solve the 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. issues. How can a child learn if he or she is hungry? How can a child dream of a brighter future if their bed is the floor? How can a child fit in if who they live with changes every few weeks?

UWRC doesn’t possess the silver bullet to poverty or education. But we’re doing our best to both reduce it and strengthen the community through our funded partners, who see is much more closely than we do. That’s why our Community Investment Council awarded funding to Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Tri-State, which needs more male mentors because too many children are growing up without fathers. And the Boys and Girls Club, which needs afterschool tutoring because children aren’t getting support at home. And the Mason County Public Library, which partnered with the school system to expand early childhood literacy efforts because too many children were reaching third grade and not reading at that level.

UWRC also has delved into larger arenas to address the bigger symptoms of the poverty disease. That included a $60,000 Innovation Grant to Wayne County Schools for focused care of elementary students who have become victims of the opioid crisis. And our ongoing partnership with Harmony House to address the growing number of disconnected youth has culminated into tens of thousands of dollars in federal grant funds to start a Huntington youth drop-in shelter aimed at increasing high school graduation and higher education attainment rates, along with reducing unemployment and homelessness rates.

We don’t have all the answers. Nor does any singular program. But we’ve got to keep working together to address these issues, to fight for the next generation, to open doors, to change the story.

We must work together. We must Live United.

Bill Rosenberger is director of resource development for United Way of the River Cities. This column was co-authoried by Carol H. Bailey, executive director.