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Just what public education needs

Local editorial

With half a district's kids in poverty, teachers should know how to help

Grumbling arose from not just a few quarters last week when Medford announced kids would be out of school Wednesday so teachers could hear a talk on childhood poverty. Just what education doesn't need, the criticism went: another in-service day.

But Wednesday's talk by poverty expert Donna Beegle may have been just what education needs.

Medford schools, statistics show, are overwhelmingly populated by children growing up in poor families. About half of students districtwide come from families whose incomes are low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, one measure of poverty. In half of the district's 14 elementary schools, the rate is at least 60 percent; at one, 92 percent of students fit the category.

Educators have known for awhile that poverty makes a difference when it comes to educating kids. Children who come to school without breakfast, for example, will be less ready to learn. Kids who come from poor homes are less likely to have exposure to books and reading.

But the connection that Beegle was helping strengthen Wednesday was this one: that educators play a critical role for these kids, not only because they can help them learn to read but because a good education also can provide them with an escape route from poverty.

Many will need the help. Poverty tends to cling to families through generations, as children with few opportunities see few possibilities when they become adults.

— How important is education in this equation? Any career adviser can tell you your chances of earning a decent salary rise with education. People without a high school diploma make, on average, &

36;20,000 a year. High school graduates make about &

36;28,000 on average, college graduates pull in &

36;47,000 and people with doctoral degrees make an average of &

36;70,000 annually.

And it's not just a financial thing: People who become hooked by education are less likely to commit crimes as adults and less likely to use social services. They are more likely to be the kind of adults who become involved in a community in a positive way.

Avoiding poverty is a bigger challenge than ever in places like Medford, where a low average annual salary ' about &

36;29,000 ' coupled with some of the state's highest real estate prices make life's basics hard for many to afford.

Education shouldn't be about poverty, it should be about education.

But the reality in a community with as many poor kids as Medford is that it's going to be about poverty anyway.

Better that educators learn to help students than that they simply sit back and wish the problem would go away.