Over the last five days or so, I’ve been reading as much as I possibly can about the struggles and needs of at-risk youth in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. My research has taken me in two directions–one has been to read scholarly and anecdotal articles and books about the specific educational and developmental crises the youth are facing, and the other has been to read juvenile fiction that recounts their tragedies and triumphs.
Some of what I read was not particularly new, coming together to paint a grim picture, but also a hopeful one. The stark reality is that poverty, according to the Children’s Defense Fund in 2001, is one of the largest factors for family stress and relates directly to failure at school. The stresses that children face at home are huge, as a result of economic status and of the consequences that result from that, such as poor nutrition, unstable family lives, less access to mental health care, and frequent absence of stable male role models. These factors are added to a culture that does not put a priority on education and particularly on school.
One of the saddest aspects of this situation is its self-perpetuating nature, both as parents who had poor experiences with school perpetuate this attitude, and as student’s failures or perceived failures leave them with strong negative feelings towards school as a whole. Students, who experience failures early on in their education, frequently do not feel that they are capable of succeeding. They may have negative perceptions of themselves, school, or both. Without the basic foundation of reading skills and mathematical skills, students find school increasingly challenging. In particular, students who fall behind in reading skills, may never be able to make up the reading practice that students who have been reading all along.
Furthermore, many of these children are left unsupervised in the after school hours, the period in which they are at the greatest risk of committing or falling victim to violent crime. A fair number of these children are in turn responsible for the care of even younger children during this time period, which means they have no motivation to work on school assignments.
While this is a grim picture, there is hope! Public libraries have long been locations for latchkey students to spend the after-school hours, frequently in undirected activities with friends. Now, however, libraries are starting Homework Help Centers (HHC) to provide a location dedicated to school work, with staff and volunteers trained to assist at-risk children. These centers provide many advantages beyond a few math pointers. HHC help participants develop self-confidence, connection with the community, ability to solve problems in their lives and in school, a greater ability to cope with the world, and an improved self-control through learning to make decisions and delaying gratification. Also, participants have models in volunteers and coordinators of adult behavior and academic success, that are frequently more acceptable then teachers and the school.