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We Mustn't Let Poverty Get in the Way of Learning

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This post is part of a series on childhood poverty in the United States in partnership with Save the Children and Julianne Moore. Moore leads the organization's Valentine's Day campaign, through which cards are sold to support the fight against poverty in the U.S. To learn more or to purchase the cards, click here.

My work with Save the Children takes me all around the world. In just the past few months, I've traveled to Egypt, Uganda, Kenya and several places in between. Everywhere I go, I meet people who are doing remarkable work for children and hear about how individuals are giving their all to keep kids in their community safe, healthy and happy. But one of the stories that I find replaying over and over in my head is a story I heard right here in America's backyard, at St. Paul Elementary School in Clarendon County, South Carolina.

The determined and energetic principal there, Rosa Dingle, told me about a recent school day when one of her teachers called her down to her classroom and asked her to watch the class for half an hour. Rosa went, perplexed about why her teacher would suddenly need to leave the classroom to run an errand. When she arrived, she pulled the teacher aside, asked what the emergency was and found that her colleague went to the store to buy a new pair of shoes for one of her students.

The little boy had outgrown his old shoes and cut a hole in the front so that his toes were peeking out -- but winter was on its way and his teacher couldn't bear to see him in shoes that would give him no protection against the frost.

Rosa's story about an exceptional teacher highlighted what is, unfortunately, an unexceptional tale across America. Today, nearly one in four American children is living in poverty. In Clarendon County, where the childhood poverty rate is more than 38 percent, it's one in three children. Growing up in poverty means having fallen 18 months behind your peers developmentally by age four. And the negative effects continue throughout high school, at which point 32 percent of those who lived in poverty for more than half their lives will never graduate, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2011 report "Double Jeopardy."

But rather than throw out more harrowing numbers and statistics, I have asked Ms. Dingle to share a first-hand account of what it really means to grow up poor in a rich country -- and why she sees early education as key to breaking the cycle of poverty. After all, the born-and-bred Clarendon County resident is speaking from personal experience.

A note from Rosa Dingle, Ed.S
Principal, St. Paul Elementary School, Summerton, S.C.

Aside from the addition of computers and email, not much else has improved in Clarendon County schools since my days as a student here. Poverty is just as prevalent today as it was when I was growing up. Over the past several years, one business after another has closed down, leaving none to fuel our school district with tax revenue or employ local residents.

Today, a strip of mostly boarded-up shops lines the picturesque downtown of Summerton, where I now work as the principal of St. Paul Elementary School. The biggest blow to the area's economy came in September 2010 with the shutdown of Summerton's Federal Mogul Plant, a global automotive supplier that, during its heyday, employed 800 workers in a town of just over 1,000 residents.

With so many parents losing their jobs, the majority of students in my school--many from single-parent households--qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. One of the parents recently told me that she was heating her home using the oven because there was no heat in the house. And stories of students whose parents can't afford to buy them winter clothes and shoes (such as the boy I told Carolyn about) are all too common.

If our children have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or how to keep warm, their school work will inevitably suffer. Many parents of the students in my school can barely afford life's basic necessities, let alone books. As a result, too many children at St. Paul Elementary read two to three years below their grade level. Having worked at a high school for several years, I know what it's like for students to be so far behind, they want to give up.

That's why, at the elementary school level, I feel personally responsible to make sure each student is prepared for middle school and beyond. It is imperative that we give every child, every chance, every day an opportunity to succeed. In spite of the limited resources and personnel, our students come to school with their heads held high, smiling and willing to learn. I even catch some of them reading books as they are walking to class.

If we want to break the cycle of poverty, we need to ensure that our children excel academically. Our vision for St. Paul Elementary School is to establish and maintain high expectations for all--no exceptions! I often tell my students my personal story, which resonates with many of them. I didn't know who my father was until I was 18 years old. Raised by my grandmother right here in Clarendon County, I faced many of the same challenges. Education was the way out of poverty for me. And it can -- and should -- be for my students, too.

Rosa T. Dingle, Principal of St. Paul Elementary School. Dingle has been principal for three years at St. Paul Elementary School. She holds a Bachelor of Science in elementary education, a Master's Degree in counselor education, and an Educational Specialist degree, all from South Carolina State University. She is currently a doctoral candidate at South Carolina State University. She is married to Joseph L. Dingle and they have six lovely children.

Financially struggling schools rely on programs like Save the Children's to provide educational support and books for children to read in school and at home. In light of Valentine's Day, spread the love of reading by getting your limited-edition Valentine's Day card and support Save the Children's school-based programs throughout the United States.