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Doug Widener is a Gainesville resident and founder of Citizens Alliance of Prince William (“Putting Children and Families First”), an all-volunteer, nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving county residents' quality of life.  Contact CitizensAlliancePW@gmail.com

The old adage that “education is the way out of poverty,” while true, is easier said than done.  Those who didn’t grow up economically disadvantaged – and especially if they aren’t members of a racial or ethnic minority group – may not be aware of the many long-established mindsets and other obstacles that stand in the way of children hoping to break free from the cycle of poverty that grips many families across generations.  

For example, if you’re a student living in cramped quarters with several younger siblings, or have heat in only one room where other family members gather and the TV is always on, or there are other constant distractions and no public library within walking distance, where do you find a quiet place to study and do your homework?  

Or, if you have a chronic toothache or worrisome medical condition that goes untreated due to parental neglect, insurance-related problems or some other reason that students who aren’t economically disadvantaged don’t have to worry about, how does that impact your ability to concentrate on your schoolwork?  

And what does it mean to your academic success if you attend a school where most of the students are also economically disadvantaged, classrooms are overcrowded and your teachers are overworked and underpaid?

The percentage of Prince William County students who are economically disadvantaged has steadily increased from 22.4 percent in 2001 to 40.2 percent in 2019, according to “Student Demographics 2019-20 School Year,” published by the school division’s Office of Facilities Services.

The distribution of those students among county schools ranges from 4.4 percent in some schools to as high as to 85.2 percent in others.     

So, in a nation willing to spend $2.1 billion --that’s $2.1 billion, with a “b” -- to build each one of our 20 B2 bombers, what are we willing to invest to help our economically disadvantaged students overcome generational poverty?  

One possible solution is to establish “community schools,” the subject of a Rand Corporation research report: “Illustrating the Promise of Community Schools: An Assessment of the Impact of the New York Community Schools Initiative,” which was published Jan. 28.

A free copy of can be downloaded at here

According to a related article on that date in The Washington Post, there are already more than 5,000 community schools nationwide that use school campuses “to offer a range of social services and family supports.”

The New York City program has “succeeded in reducing absenteeism, improving discipline and moving students to the next grade,” the post reports. 

Having been a public school student without a quiet place to study for 12 years, I would have gladly settled for an old school bus that had been converted by the school system into a heated “study hall” with desks and chairs and parked within walking distance of my home. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been the only student to regularly use it. 

The writer is a resident of Haymarket and founder of Citizens Alliance of Prince William, whose tagline is “Putting Children and Families First.”

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