This outstanding column was written by Marcus Pohlman and published last week in The Commercial Appeal:

The average child in America will spend less than 10 percent of his or her life in school through the 12th grade. If we are serious about education reform, we need to understand what’s happening to our students the other 90 percent of the time, and adapt to those realities.

Home stability is a huge component. In Memphis, there are at least three types of home environments, not unlike those in all major urban areas in America.

There is the stable family, with parents having an education beyond high school and at least a middle-class income. The home is educationally enriched with a variety of books and other learning tools. Summers often involve educational camps and travel opportunities. Students from such an advantaged home life normally will succeed in a public school that provides standard coursework and a traditional array of accelerated and remedial opportunities that meet any special needs.

Then there is the relatively stable home that has fewer benefits accruing from parental education and income. You’ll find fewer books and other educational opportunities. Children in these homes can keep pace with students in the previous group by, for example, having their parents agree to review homework and report cards and attend parent-teacher conferences, and by those parents supervising the use of books and educational tools made available by the school system.

Addressing the needs in the third home environment is in my opinion the only way to truly improve public education in major cities. Public educators must be involved because these children do not enjoy the benefit of a stable environment. A child often moves from caregiver to caregiver several times in the course of a single school year. Whoever is charged with the child’s care at any given point is likely to be poor and minimally educated. There are few books in the home.

Public schools need to provide families in this last group with a range of services, including prenatal care, caregiver instruction and tutoring. Longer school days, weeks and years should be considered. Chicago’s “Cradle to Classroom” program, for example, focuses on unwed teen mothers beginning prior to delivery. Staff members arrange for access to prenatal care and make monthly home visits. After birth, the program sends trained mentors into the homes on a weekly basis. The mother is taught how to play cognitive learning games with her infant, beginning in the child’s very first month.

Educators also must help these families with the adjustment from preschool programs to elementary school. Most poor children will continue to need the extra comprehensive services that programs like Head Start have provided to that point. These include continued assistance in vocabulary development, tutoring and homework assistance, as well as support services provided by nutritionists, social workers, psychologists and people hired to encourage caregiver involvement. The federal government has recognized the need for such a comprehensive approach by funding the creation of what they call “promise neighborhoods.”

In Memphis, the nation’s poorest city, three-quarters of the children qualify for federally subsidized school meals, start school academically two years behind and are less than half as likely to achieve proficiency throughout their school years. Their chances of attending college are less than 1 in 10.

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