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Poverty crippling social development of Hammond kindergarteners

Angelique Farmer second-grader Lafayette Elementary Hammond Ind. reads while her class waits use computers. The school’s motis “Success is our

Angelique Farmer, a second-grader at Lafayette Elementary in Hammond, Ind., reads while her class waits to use the computers. The school’s motto is “Success is our only option.” | Dan Stockman~AP

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:44AM

There are no swings at Hammond’s Lafayette Elementary School. In fact, there’s almost no playground equipment at all.

That’s OK, though, because they don’t really do outside recess here. They can’t: The children of Lafayette Elementary School don’t know how to play with one another.

“They have no social skills,” Principal Colette Weitknecht says.

These are children of extreme poverty: At least a third of them live in public housing projects. Most of the rest live in crumbling rentals. The effects of poverty are so strong — experts now say it is as crippling as brain damage — that students at Lafayette often begin kindergarten two years behind in development. Their fine-motor skills are so undeveloped — some have never held a crayon or pencil — that if they were adults they would qualify for occupational therapy.

Welcome to Lake County’s Census Tract 206, where the median household income is $10,581, one of the lowest in Indiana.

Sixty-nine percent of the population here is in poverty, census figures show; 75 percent of the families are headed by a single mother.

“These parents care about their children and want what’s best for them,” Weitknecht says, “but they’re in survival mode.”

But drive three hours south on Interstate 65 to Carmel, Ind., and it’s a different world: Gorgeous homes dot the landscape between rolling pastures. In certain pockets, massive homes — some resembling European castles — sit behind gates and walls. Most intersections feature landscaped roundabouts, and many are interspersed with tony boutiques and expensive coffee shops.

Unlike Hammond, the schools here are a magnet, drawing families from all over the state. One of them, College Wood Elementary, had 93 percent of its students pass the state’s standardized test last year. Where 98 percent of Lafayette students get free or reduced-price meals, only 3 percent of College Wood students qualify.

This is Hamilton County Census Tract 1110.01, where one out of every three households makes more than $200,000 a year. The median household income is $138,713, the highest in the state.

Indiana has been wrestling with how to pay for public schools for decades, with the issue becoming the subject of political fights, posturing, massive changes, attempts at reform and even lawsuits. Urban schools need more money because it is more expensive to educate poor children who are struggling academically; suburban schools need more to accommodate the growth from families fleeing urban schools. Politicians on one side argue that giving more money to struggling schools only rewards failure; those on the other side say it is wrong to abandon some students just because they are poor. Taxpayers struggling to pay for it all are left in the middle.

Anna Mundy’s family moved to Carmel from Los Angeles last year. She is excited that her 3-year-old, Abigail, will be attending Carmel Clay Schools.

“The teachers are great compared to L.A.,” Mundy said. “People I talk to all say Carmel schools are the best schools to take your kids. Everything I hear’s been great.”

Carmel Clay Schools did not allow a reporter to visit any schools or interview any employee about the challenges faced by the rapidly growing district. When a reporter took photos of College Wood Elementary from a public sidewalk, he was asked to leave.

But even without interviews — the district spokeswoman said they “would not be participating in the story” — the differences between the two schools are stark.

By some definitions, Lafayette Elementary is a failing school: Just 48 percent of students passed both the math and English portions of the ISTEP+ test last year. But that 48 percent, by another measure, is a huge success: four years ago, only 27 percent passed both portions.

In 2005, after years of poor performance, the state stepped in and required drastic changes: The principal was fired, families were allowed to move their students to other schools, and many teachers were replaced.

That process is commonly known as a “state takeover,” but the staff calls it a “restructuring” because, while the state demanded improvements, it didn’t tell them how to do it, they say.

So they found their own way to succeed, mainly by tracking every student’s progress every day and immediately providing help wherever the student needed it. Name any one of the 524 students and Principal Weitknecht can look at the school’s “data wall” and tell you where that student is compared with where that student needs to be and describe what efforts are being made to get that student there.

“Almost every student will have an intervention at some point,” Weitknecht says.

The school day was extended by a half-hour to provide more instruction, there are reading groups and activities galore, and the school hosts more than 40 workshops a year for parental involvement. Teachers have their training on Saturdays.

“The district says kindergartners need to know 20 high-frequency words,” teacher Iris Day says. “We say, ‘No, they need to know 85.’ ”

Day taught preschool for 15 years before becoming a kindergarten teacher six years ago. Many teachers at Lafayette are older but still relatively new to teaching. Day says these are people who are more dedicated than most because they left careers — often better-paying ones — to become teachers.

“Nothing about our school is for teacher convenience,” Day says. “We teach like our hair is on fire. They say our children don’t have enough playtime. Well, maybe not, but they will be able to write sentences and that’s what matters to me. My kids will come out [of kindergarten] reading, writing and doing math problems.”

As poor as Lake County’s census tract is, Hamilton County’s census tract is wealthy. In fact, in many respects the two areas are mirror images of each other, where everything on one side is the opposite of the other.

The Carmel tract is mostly white; non-Hispanic whites are in the minority in Hammond. Both have immigrant populations, but Carmel’s come from countries such as Great Britain, Germany and India and speak English well. Hammond’s immigrant students come from Poland, Korea and Mexico, and often do not speak English well.

In Carmel, 0.2 percent of households had public assistance income; in Hammond, 20 percent did.

In Carmel, 7 percent of households rent their home; in Hammond, 93 percent rent.

There are other mirror images: Each census tract has a hospital. On a recent afternoon, Saint Margaret Mercy Hospital in Hammond had 13 people in its emergency waiting room. After about 10 minutes, none had moved. Indiana University Health North Hospital in Carmel, meanwhile, had none waiting. After a few minutes, one couple came in; within minutes, the man was seeing a doctor.

In Carmel, according to FBI crime statistics, there were 22 violent crimes in 2009, none of which was a murder. In Hammond during the same year, there were 741 violent crimes, of which 11 were murders.

“That’s what they know,” Weitknecht said.

Hammond and Carmel Clay school districts have similar enrollments, but Carmel Clay spends about 4 percent more per student. That financial help comes from local taxpayers, as Hammond gets 19 percent more per student in state aid. Where does the money go? It doesn’t go to teachers: Carmel Clay’s teachers are paid an average of 12 percent more, according to state figures. Administrators in Carmel Clay make 8 percent more.

Weitknecht said at her school, the extra money helps pay for all the extra efforts, like the parent-involvement coordinator and the extra academic support students need.

The Legislative Service Agency estimates Hammond will lose $2.3 million in state funding over the next two years. Carmel Clay, meanwhile, will gain almost $1 million. AP

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