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Esther J. Cepeda Headshot

The Tale of the Tape: Child Almost Gets Left Behind

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Two days before Columbia University Teachers College's Campaign for Education Equity announced its new research papers on the topic of poverty as the key barrier to closing U.S. education gap - I got a personal taste of how children in this country get left behind despite the massive amounts of resources being poured into education.

I was sitting in my living room Tuesday, working on the computer when my doorbell rang. Out in the cold drizzle stood a squat, forty-ish Hispanic woman in a worn coat and scarf accompanied by a young, equally-damp eleven-ish girl. The woman asked me if I spoke Spanish and when I replied in the affirmative she asked for my help.

Her story - which I have no reason to doubt - was that she and her daughter had been walking the streets of my suburb all morning trying to gather materials for a school project and the girl, who'd been wearing brand new snow boots, was now suffering from bleeding feet. They wanted to know if I'd be kind enough to lend them a pair of shoes so they could complete their walk home.

Once it dawned on me that my garage door was up and my car inside was parked in front a rack piled with worn-out running shoes destined for the local Goodwill, I realized why they'd stopped at my house.

I coaxed them inside to the warmth of my home so the girl could put on my two-sizes-too-big pair of shoes, and got mom to tell me about their morning.

They'd set out that Veteran's Day morning to gather the materials for a class project. Using the school - which services both the upper-middle class families who live in my neighborhood, as well as the low-income families that surround it - as their compass, they'd gotten lost in the tangle of cul-de-sacs and dead-ends in their search for the public library.

After two hours they headed back onto Main street and into a community center which opened a few years ago to assist the booming Latino population, looking for a computer. "But they told me to come back another day because the Internet was not working," the mom told me.

They then walked the three-quarters of a mile to Walgreens to buy colored construction paper and adhesive tape...which they ended up not being able to afford.

Stupefied by the situation, I fished out a brand new roll of tape, and offered hot chocolate - oblivious to the next request.

"She has to do a report on 'Women in the Revolutionary War' and we're not going to be able to get to the library now," Mom said sheepishly as the young girl with the bloody, blistered feet literally squirmed in embarrassment, "Can she use your computer?"

What to most people would have amounted to no more than a routine annoyance - "Geez, I gotta get supplies for my kid's school project!" - became for this family an epic odyssey that nearly ended badly.

We're all concerned about the economy and our jobs but who among us can honestly say we don't have nearly 24/7 access to an Internet-accessible computer? Who among us has ever not had enough money to buy a 99-cent item at Walgreens? How many times have we been so desperate to provide for our children that we literally relied on the kindness of strangers?

Billions of dollars are spent every year in researching and analyzing what keeps kids from succeeding in schools; the answer to ensuring no children get "left behind" isn't more cash to schools, it's more resources to people - a task lying far out of the scope of any school district and thus seemingly impossible.

According to Columbia University's announcement, on November 17 and 18 the Campaign for Educational Equity will outline a comprehensive national plan that would deliver $15,000 to one million students whose families fall within 75 to 125 percent of the federal poverty line.

The difference between this plan and others I've seen in the past is that it funds the standard smaller class size and effective teaching initiatives but also "a full array of out-of-school assistance from in utero through age 18, including prenatal care, after-school tutoring, health care, nutrition and physical education, and family support."

According to the press release, the $15,000 investment would include federal, state and local funding but also recoup many of it's costs "through subsequent reductions in costs for special education and compensatory educational services for older students and savings from the reduction in costs in health care, crime, and welfare that are associated with poorer educational outcomes and the increases in worker productivity and tax revenue associated with improved educational outcomes."

Most people don't buy that line of thinking, under the guise that it isn't their job to provide unknown schoolchildren with all the infrastructure that those kids' parents should be providing.

If you think that's not your job, then whose job is it? On Tuesday, it was mine, and I did it happily. Mom and girl got home armed with 12 pages of Internet research on the role of women in the Revolutionary War.

Maybe the Campaign for Educational Equity's full report will get national media play and shine a spotlight on those who really don't have any of the social and financial resources most of us take for granted - those who have to ask strangers for shoes, and tape, and information just to get simple fifth-grade class reports completed.