Carl Wernicke: The Education Our Children Deserve

Jun 17, 2015

Credit IHMC

Throughout my 30-year career at the Pensacola News Journal, a recurring theme of our coverage was poverty and its impact on education. Statistics clearly show that high rates of poverty are reflected by poor performance in schools, and Escambia County has been a prime example.

One of the more enduring themes about education in Escambia is how openly people talked about taking jobs there, but buying a home in Santa Rosa County because they believed the schools were better.

My own opinion, based on attending Escambia County schools throughout my childhood, is that the education available in its schools is on a par with most school systems. The steady flow of graduates to top universities around the nation testifies to the fact that something is right about our schools.

My belief has always been that the kind of education students can get in local schools depends on how important a good education is to their parents, how important it is to the student, on the household income level, and finally, on how educated the parents are.

Toss into that equation homes where one or both parents are missing, parents or other caregivers with little or no education, and poverty, and you have a potent mix for underachievement. Put students from this kind of background into a school with children from intact homes with incomes well above the poverty level, and in the same classroom with the same teacher one student will thrive, and the other will struggle. A teacher once told me that when the second-graders in her class took home a donated book, it often was the only book in the house, except perhaps for the phone book.

Recently, Randy Hammer of the Studer Institute wrote a column about a Harvard study that found that Escambia County is among the worst in the United States for income mobility among children from poor families. That is, if you are a poor child in Escambia County, the odds are that you will remain poor.

Hammer also had a long career at the News Journal and other newspapers, eventually returning here as executive editor. During his editorship the News Journal was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. As a journalist he was intensely interested in education and poverty.

In his column, he wrote that “I’ve spent most of my life here. I raised my children here. And I absolutely love this place. For me, the area has been great. But it’s clear Escambia County is not such a great place for a lot of people, especially poor people.”

Reading the column brought back to me memories of my school years. I grew up in Ferry Pass, a blue-collar neighborhood. In my first grade class at Ferry Pass Elementary, the teacher kept a cigar box on her desk where loose change, coins found on the playground and donations went to provide lunch money for children who came to school without a lunch, but couldn’t afford to buy one, which at the time was something like 35 cents.  I remember one student coming to school barefoot and in dirty clothes, and the teachers and staff quietly dealing with it.

I’ll admit that having a child come to school barefoot struck me even as a first-grader as out of the ordinary. But what strikes me now is how ordinary I found it that the cigar box on the teacher’s desk was a normal part of a classroom.

I don’t know what became of the barefoot child. But given what we know about poverty and education, his children would have arrived at school little better off, if at all.