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Despite rising poverty numbers, local schools ‘respond’ to challenge

The 2011 Iowa Kids Count highlights Jasper County as an area of rising poverty and unemployment, yet test scores and graduate rates continue to climb

It goes nearly without saying that in 2000, things were looking up in Newton. Unemployment numbers were low — some of the lowest in the state, as evidenced by Jasper County’s millennium jobless measure of just 2.1 percent — and the economy was steady.

Twelve years later, it’s difficult to ignore the changes that gradually wrought the county. With the loss of thousands of jobs, unemployment numbers soared and numbers of students qualifying for free and reduced lunches in the Newton Community School District followed suit, evidenced by data found in the recently released Iowa Kids Count.

The report, which examines “hundreds of measures of child well-being,” laid out state and county data in areas such as child poverty, children receiving WIC benefits and unemployment figures.

While these numbers — measured in 2000 and again in 2011 — seem daunting, new corporations have began moving to town and spirits are once again looking up: not just for the working class, but for students as well, as NCSD Superintendant Steve McDermott and Director of Elementary Education Jim Gilbert explained.

“When you look and see that state unemployment is up 127 percent, that’s not a Maytag thing, that’s a systematic thing,” Gilbert said of Jasper County’s spike in unemployment. “You can see that this is widespread. Newton just happens to be where we live and this is our world, but it’s reflective of a trend thats happening across the country.”

Nearly half of Iowa’s counties experienced jumps in unemployment numbers of at least 100 percent over the past decade; Newton’s 271-percent hike nearly topped the list with 7.9 percent of the workforce unemployed.

In fact, just one county was hit harder than Jasper County over the past 11 years in terms of job loss: Hamilton County’s 352-percent ascent to 10 percent total unemployment ranked it first in job loss across the state.

This, in turn, led to marked increases in the number of children qualifying for free and reduced lunches at school, receiving food assistance at home and child poverty levels overall.

Despite this, Newton schools have “responded” — a word McDermott emphasizes — to the city’s changing economic landscape with successful results.

“We talk about responding to things rather than reacting,” McDermott said. “A lot of people will look at these statistics and jump to conclusions, and we really try to avoid that.

Following a study that gauged incoming kindergartners’ readiness for school, NCSD educators found that one-fifth of students did not have adequate environmental preparation within their homes — one issue Gilbert says ties directly into the tough times that have fallen upon many families in the district.

“Where the real inequality lies is in the resources people have in their homes,” he explained. “Those resources trickle down to the kids, everything from paying for access to the Internet to cable TV and the Discovery and History channels and access to multimedia learning activities. Either you have resources to have those or you don’t; either you have newspapers and magazines and print media or you don’t. When kids come to school either they’ve had all that or they haven’t, and that’s where the disadvantage lies.”

“When I think of poverty, I think of what kids have been exposed to and what they haven’t when they come to school,” he added.

As a result of this, as well as it being a prime time in terms of legislation and funding opportunities, the NCSD is currently in its third year of offering preschool to students — students whom might otherwise fall by the wayside of their primed peers.

“We pride ourselves in picking them (students) up wherever they’re at,” McDermott said. “One area we’re very proud of, academically, is that we’re doing a great job of closing the gap between students that may have more resources at home and those who have don’t.”

In this regard, the numbers don’t lie: Jasper County’s test scores in both fourth and eight grades have improved from 2000 to 2011. Most impressive, however, are the graduation numbers high schools within the county have attained in that same period of time.

In 2000, Jasper County high schools graduated just 79 percent of students — a number far below the state average. After just 11 years, Jasper County boasts one of the few positive changes in graduation rate with a respectable 91.7 percent of students completing high school.

“That’s been a board priority for at least four years,” McDermott said of the effort at NHS. A concerted effort involving teachers and mentors within the high school has helped NHS educators to target at-risk students and counteract potentially negative circumstances these students may encounter as the result of a struggling economy.

“You may have higher rates of poverty, but you’ve got a stronger teaching core,” Gilbert said.

While teachers have no doubt responded to the constant changes experienced by Newton and its students, Gilbert and McDermott added that the community has truly risen up to support students during tough times.

“One area that we’ve seen a decline in is the number of students participating in extracurricular activities, and we feel that those are important a young person’s development,” McDermott said. “I think we’re still searching for ways to help kids participate and manage circumstances at home by making sure that we have shoes programs in place for kids in certain sports, and so they get football or wrestling shoes at no cost so that the expense of participating isn’t a major hurdle.”

Additionally, Gilbert credits the community in backing local students through donations, helping them overcome the repercussions of rising poverty levels in the county.

“The community and the local businesses have been really supportive,” he said. “We have donations at the beginning of every year and we’re out there helping unload trucks and vans of school supplies. We bring that inside and pack up bookbags that are also donated, and every single one is gobbled up. There’s still a high need, but it’s great that the community realizes that and rallies for the students.”

It is this combination of support from educators, parents and the community that has aided students in Jasper County in overcoming tough financial circumstances and will continue to do so in the future.

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