JPS enjoys a 128-year tradition of excellence in the local community, annually serving approximately 5,000 diverse students. But the reality is: 7 in 10 JPS students are economically disadvantaged, as compared to 43% in 2002. Free and reduced lunch statistics have steadily risen, ranging from 91% at Love Elementary School to 61% at Persell Middle School. JPS is among the poorest 1% of all districts in NYS.
“Poverty is not a new concept in education or in Jamestown,” said JPS Superintendent Tim O. Mains. “But the percentage of students in Jamestown that come from economically disadvantaged households has risen dramatically in the past 13 years. Often the engagement gap in reaching economically disadvantaged students is blamed on the students or their families – that they are not interested in school. That is not what the research shows. It is not a failure of the student or the family. Being disadvantaged or at risk does not cause poor performance – our response to it does. As a district, we simply cannot use it as an excuse – we know every child can learn and succeed. We must better understand and engage all students, regardless of their background or economic conditions, to help them better succeed in school. It takes thinking in a new way.”
To help JPS teachers, staff and administrators better understand students who might live in economically disadvantaged households, the district has looked to the work of Eric Jensen, author of, Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind, which discusses the outside factors that affect students in the classroom and strategies teachers and staff can use to help bridge that engagement gap to help them learn. These factors and strategies do not apply only to economically disadvantaged students but to all students in the district.
“Looking at the changes in the demographics and the increase in economically disadvantaged students in our district, if teachers are using the same strategies they were using 10 years ago, it will certainly not meet the needs of our current students,” said Maureen Diehl, JPS Behavior Analyst. “We must change how we think about and teach our students. By proactively engaging students and using strategies that will enhance their learning, we will positively affect all of our students.”
The district began looking at Mr. Jensen’s book during a “Book Study” over the summer months with interested teachers. The group met weekly over a four-week period to discuss the text and most importantly, to consider how they could apply the strategies in their own classroom. They were also asked how they would share that they have learned with their school. Love School teacher Roslyn Sisley-Kazelunas participated.
“This past year I have spent a great deal of time going to conferences and reading about children who live in poverty. When the district offered this book study, I was bound and determined to become involved,” said Mrs. Sisley-Kazelunas. “I loved every minute of the class and the book. Besides what I am already doing, I will continue to use music and dance in my classroom but I will be mindful to pick different types of music for different activities. I am also going to work on working memory activities that were suggested in the book to help build brain capacity. I am hopeful that I will be able to do more of this to make a difference and engage many students, more often, during the day.”
In addition to the summer book study, JPS administrators discovered more about the various strategies during a Leadership Retreat held before school began. The administrators will be taking the information back to their staff to discuss and implement.
“If we read this book and, as a school, adopt many of the strategies and advice, we will not only see growth in our low-income students but all students,” said Persell Middle School Principal Phil Cammarata. “We have to realize that some or our students deal with things most of our staff have never endured. We have to try to understand them and find ways to engage them because for some, we are the brightest hope in their lives. At Persell, we intend to read this book as a staff and begin to change our culture to become more understanding of our students, make deeper connections with them and move away from punishment philosophy for those that are misbehaving and more toward changing behavior. After reading this book in the past week, I am convinced that if schools internalize the strategies and suggestions, behavior and academics will improve significantly.”