Educating our way out of Poverty

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MEMPHIS, TN -- One way to escape poverty is through education.

Time and time again we've seen proof that kids in poverty can go on to do great things and rise above their circumstances.

Getting to that point isn't easy.

Making sure her children do their homework is important to Margaret White even though there's no actual home to do it in.

She and her four daughters live in an old motel on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

The day we visited, she was helping her two youngest, second grader Kanisha and third grader Shundria, with math.

"It's just a struggle and I'm trying to prevent my kids from ending up like their mother," said White.

This mother sees a good education as a way out of poverty for her girls.

She dropped out after 9th grade and believes that's one reason she ended up in this predicament.

She got evicted and lost her job.

She lives day-to-day in one room with all her belongings packed for the next move to wherever.

White said, "Their education is more like my life because I didn't have one so I want them to be better."

"We're looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 85%, maybe even 90% of our children who are living basically below the poverty line to some extent," said Dr. Heidi Rameriz of Shelby County Schools.

Ramirez is Shelby County Schools' new chief academic officer.

It's her job to help the district achieve its 80/90/100 goal by 2025.

That's 80 percent of its students college and career ready.

90 percent of seniors graduate on time and 100 percent of graduates enrolled in some type of post secondary education program.

WREG asked if that's an attainable goal.

"Yes. I wouldn't be doing this everyday if not. Is it hard work? Absolutely, but it's possible," Ramirez answered quickly.

She says all students can learn, but living in poverty in urban cities like Memphis makes it more of a struggle.

"We have kids,who as a result of their home situation are coming to us hungry, so yes we provide breakfast and lunch for our children and in some of our buildings even dinner. That still isn't enough to keep a child, the stomach full if you will and ready to be engaged and the brain engaged so that's a challenge for us." she said.

When the home isn't stable it makes teaching students even harder.

That's why SCS created a homeless department and its own staff of licensed social workers.

WREG traveled to Crump Elementary to see the social workers in action.

They're mental health professionals working in and out of the classroom.

They handle the extreme behavior problems, offer counseling sessions and connect families with agencies to eliminate barriers that might interfere with a student's ability to learn.

"Resiliency is the way I would describe my children. To see that they make it regardless is amazing," said Dr. Chiffone Shelton, a SCS Licensed Social Worker.

Children steeped in poverty and the problems associated with it are often behind their more affluent peers.

SCS likes to give them an early start.

That's the reason the district pushed for expanding Pre-K and head start.

Students learn the basics there so by the time they get to kindergarten and learn to read they're on track or close to it.

Reading and a newly adopted literacy program is paramount to SCS reaching those 2025 goals.

Ramirez said, "The literacy plan lays that out by each grade level in terms of instructional minutes, in terms of instructional designs, best practices, professional development and we hope going forward also a range of community support aligned to that vision."

It takes a village and Knowledge Quest is part of that community support.

For Shundria and her younger sister Kanisha, it fills in the gap between home and school. Giving them what their mother can't and what the school isn't required to.

"We see children as being the greatest asset in the community and it`s their stability, their health, it's them tapping into their passion that becomes our call," said Knowledge Quest founder Marlon Foster.

Knowledge Quest operates 4 sites along the Walker Avenue corridor in South Memphis.

Everyday after school students from Pre-K to 12th grade flock to Knowledge Quest's after school programs for tutoring, healthy snacks and programs that help expand their horizons beyond their zip codes.

Foster said, "We have children playing football for Tennessee, we have children who are very successful in the military."

The list of success stories coming out of Knowledge Quest continues, not just for students, but also for their parents.

The program now includes a component for struggling parents like Margaret White.

"Yesterday, I had a problem with my child didn't get her homework done," White told a group of other parents during her counseling session.

While White is in her session, her four children are in theirs.

She's hoping they can be part of the success stories coming out of their South Memphis neighborhood.

White told me about the day one of her daughters said she wanted to become a lawyer.

"Just to even hear them set their standards to be anything remotely like a lawyer, it's just so heartwarming, so heartwarming," she said.

The day we met White WREG's Stephanie Scurlock posted Margaret`s situation on Facebook and in a matter of minutes some generous Memphians responded.

She's now getting help finding an apartment and has a job.

That's one less worry for her and her four daughters as they head to school each day.

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