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One of the most important solutions to lowering poverty levels in the United States is through education. Lower-income students have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to getting a high-quality elementary and high school education. Even high achievers have faced significant challenges when enrolling in college. Enrollment rates showed a gradual increase through the year 2007, however.

Modest gains in low-income student college enrollment rates eroded during the economic downturn that began in late 2007 and continue to stagnate. According to the latest National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, just over 50 percent of recent low-income and minority high school graduates are enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college. In 2007, the rate was 58.4 percent. At the same time, middle-income and high-income student enrollment rates have risen. But there is a disparity in that group as well. Students from middle-income families had enrollment rates of 64.7 percent, but 80.7 percent of high-income students were enrolled in college.

Why Low Income Students Struggle

Children living in low-income areas have an uphill battle. Most do not have the resources and support that encourages young minds to develop. Early childhood exposure to books promotes literacy; strengthens communication skills; builds vocabulary and encourages creativity. Middle-income neighborhoods average 13 books per child, but the number in low-income areas is one book for every 300 children. Children from the lower economic brackets hear an average of 30 million fewer words by age 4 than those in higher economic brackets.

Many low-income students come from other countries and learn English as a second language. Known as English Language Learners (ELL), two-thirds come from low-income families and many have parents who did not graduate from high school. ELL students are less likely to meet or exceed proficiency levels in school as their more affluent peers.

Poverty brings about its own set of complications. Children often live in single-parent homes and are forced to change schools often. Health problems and illnesses are more prevalent in low-income families because of a lack of health insurance and sufficient medical attention. Children in low-income families also tend to lack food and proper nutrition.

Schools are another problem in most low-income areas. Many are severely under funded and lack resources found in schools in more affluent regions. Schools in the lower socioeconomic brackets typically suffer from a migration of qualified teachers. Schools with high numbers of teaching vacancies are forced to hire teachers with less experience, knowledge and training. According to the NCES, high school dropout rates are significantly higher in low-income families than higher economic brackets.

A disturbing study done by the Southern Education Foundation, published in October of 2013, found that the numbers of low-income students were rising across the United States. Analyzing 2011 statistics, the study found that nearly half, or 48 percent, of all students in public schools are now considered low-income. For the first time in 40 years, low-income students outnumber those from higher economic brackets in the South and West regions of the country.

What’s Being Done?

Title 1, Part A (Title 1) is a federal program that provides assistance to local educational facilities that have high numbers of low-income families. Based on specific formulas, eligible schools receive grant money to provide financial resources to children who are struggling to keep up. In 2009 to 2010 school year, more than 56,000 schools in the United States participated in the program.

Other government programs, such as the National School Lunch Programs, provide basic necessities that children need to grow healthy bodies and minds. The program offers free or reduced-priced nutritious meals that are available throughout the year, even when school is not in session.

At the local level, programs are sprouting up to assist children in low-income areas. Many cities have nonprofit tutoring programs that help students close the educational gaps at little or no cost to parents. The Boston Public School district began an initiative in 2004 to develop programs that enhanced and expanded preschool education using improved curriculums and added resources. An evaluation found that not only did the program have a positive effect on children from low-income families, but it also closed more than half of the educational gap between those students and their more affluent peers.

Because many parents in low-income brackets were not raised in an environment that encouraged learning, they don’t have the skills to help their own children. One program, Harlem Children’s Zone, seeks to change that. Manager Geoffrey Canada teaches pregnant mothers how to encourage children to develop their minds. Canada says that community resources such as school libraries, summer enrichment programs, after school programs and exposure to books are essential resources in giving low-income children a foundation on which to grow.

New York City’s successful high school choice initiative gives students the freedom to decide where they go to school. The district developed a number of smaller schools that students can opt into. The smaller schools foster stability and sustain an environment that encourages learning. Low-income students who participate have an increased graduation rate of 7 percent.

There is a growing tend to place heavier emphasis on helping pre-kindergarten children. Many lower-income children are already behind those with higher incomes when they enter kindergarten. If they don’t receive help, the gap widens. States are increasingly funding pre-kindergarten programs that address the needs of underprivileged children.