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Adam Kirk Edgerton Headshot

A New War on Poverty

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Since the start (and end) of the Chicago teacher's strike and my post, "Why I Quit Teaching," I've had the privilege of debating and communicating with people from all across the globe who have had similar experiences as teachers. But I have a full-time job now with an organization that deserves an equal amount of attention yet rarely gets it. I work for Salem State University Upward Bound, and more people need to know what Upward Bound is.

Upward Bound is not, as many people think, that month where you disappear into the woods as an undergraduate. That's Outward Bound. Nature and I have a great relationship, where I admire her from afar, as if she were a painting in a museum, or a celebrity passing on the street: Look, but don't touch.

I'm going to keep the history lesson as short as possible, but it's important to know that Upward Bound, and its sister TRiO programs, started during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations as part of the War on Poverty. Back in the day, there was a time when politicians of both parties stood up and said, "Hey, maybe we should do something about poverty." I know, it seems implausible, but it happened, so I'm told.

So why am I writing about this now? Well, Congress is considering a continuing budget resolution to fund the government from Oct. 1, 2012 - March 31, 2013. Before Sept. 30, they will have to make a decision about what programs work and which ones don't.

TRiO programs work. The mere fact that they've survived every administration, every budget cut since the 1960s should tell you something. Our Upward Bound program services the high school where I began my teaching career, a school system made infamous in Massachusetts by the incarceration of our former superintendent. We are now under state receivership. Unfortunately, these headlines are pretty much the only facts anyone outside of Lawrence knows about the city. They don't get to work with the amazing, talented, hard-working, deserving students, many of who just arrived to this country and have a dedication to education that I rarely saw when working in the suburbs. These students are fighting every day to push past personal circumstances and systemic poverty to make it. And there are teachers -- some of them from Teach for America, some of them unaffiliated (like myself), and some of them talented, veteran educators -- who are fighting with these students and for these students, not for themselves.

So how am I able to help fight poverty from outside of the classroom and without the funding of a private organization or donor? Because of the federal government and because of the generosity of our host institutions, Salem State University and Northern Essex Community College. Because the government can do good things, and it must. Because sometimes only the government can help our neediest citizens, help children who want to learn and grow in a better environment.

When I took a tutoring position at Upward Bound back in 2010, I was at the start of my second year of teaching. I was feeling discouraged and a little bit lost. But when you walk into an Upward Bound program, you immediately feel different. It's a visceral level of support not only from the staff, but from teenagers who might otherwise ignore each other in the hallways. The scale of our program is breathtakingly small -- seventy-three students with only three full-time staff members. But Upward Bound works because it gives students a safe space where they can have a surrogate family. It works because it combines compassion with rigorous expectations, with academic tutoring, with a consistently-implemented demerit system, and with opportunities to travel, to grow and to learn.

Upward Bound allows students whose parents do not hold a college degree, or who are below the poverty line (usually both criteria apply), to spend a summer in a college dorm, take classes, and adjust to life without their families. And then they go on. They go on to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, and yes, teachers.

And our test scores, you might be wondering? Not surprisingly, if you give a child four hours of tutoring a week during the school year, send them to college for the summer and teach them using college professors, standardized test scores soar. Which brings up a larger question: Why isn't every low-income, first-generation student in the United States of America entitled to these services?

So today, I write with a very concrete purpose -- to ask not only my representatives and senators, but all of them, to continue to support TRiO as even the most divided Congresses have done for decades. We know that teachers alone can't do it -- they need programs like Upward Bound to help students succeed in areas of high poverty. But without congressional support, our students' dreams of attaining a college degree and escaping poverty will be that much harder.

So for me, politics is personal. It always will be. When I hear talking points, I see students in my mind. And I know that if we don't fight, and advocate, and write, and rally, Upward Bound and TRiO will disappear. So though our minds are lingering on Chicago, let's not forget about solutions that have already been proven to work.

It's time to go to war again.