WATERVILLE — Without a relationship with a caring adult, children in poverty are much less likely to succeed in school, according to a panel on Poverty and Education in Maine at Thomas College Friday.

Debrajean Schiebel, one of the panelists, became homeless after fleeing foster care as a ninth-grader, she said.

“Foster care was not always a pleasant place to be,” she said. “Sometimes, it can be more dangerous than living on the streets.”

That October, an English teacher recognized her on a street corner and offered her a ride to school, which she declined. But the teacher repeated the offer every time she saw her on the corner until one December day, when Schiebel was particularly cold and hungry, she accepted.

The interaction began a relationship with adults she could trust, Schiebel said, a relationship that helped her complete high school and, eventually, a doctorate. Today, Schiebel runs an educational organization and serves as a consultant for the Maine Department of Education.

“That relationship was key,” she said.

Schiebel said her situation is not unique, and that many children in Maine today need a patient and persistent adult to take an interest in their welfare.

“There’s no way we can help them long term without building a relationship with them first,” agreed Elyse Pratt-Ronco, who has worked with low-income children for 10 years with the Upward Bound Program at the University of Maine at Farmington.

Pratt-Ronco said the key to connecting with each student is different, but often lies in taking an interest in things that the student is passionate about.

“Some will tell you their life story on the first day you meet them,” she said. “Some you know for three years and then you say, ‘Are we really just getting to this level?'”

Children in poverty need the help, the panelists said, because, early in life and continuing into college, they face obstacles that can make it difficult for them to earn a college degree.

The brains of young low-income students are less developed than the brains of middle-class students, Schiebel said, citing a 2009 study from University of California researchers.

That study found that the region of the brain associated with problem solving in low-income nine and 10-year-olds has impairment similar to that of an adult stroke victim.

Schiebel said low-income parents also tend to talk to their children less than their middle-class counterparts, affecting language skills. Children beginning school from a professional family know an average of 1,116 words, more than double the 525 words a child from a family in poverty knows.

“Language is the number-one thing that gets in the way of trying to move forward to a school,” Schiebel said. “I’m talking about basic English. They cannot function in the classrooms.”

In high school, Pratt-Ronco said, the children are less likely to be prepared to enter college.

“Children from families in poverty are dramatically underrepresented in higher education,” with such children getting degrees at less than half the rate of their more well-to-do counterparts, Pratt-Ronco said.

Part of the problem is that schools in low-income areas lack resources.

“Their schools can’t offer them some of the courses that would prepare them for a college education,” she said.

As those cash-strapped schools cut such services as a late bus, she said, it is more difficult for the children, who lack their own transportation alternatives, to stay after school to get help.

Family situations are also problematic, with low-income students more likely to feel pressure to stay and help their families or community members.

If a student’s parents have not gone to college , they are much less likely to be able to help their children do things like visit a college campus, fill out a financial aid form or evaluate information about how to choose the right college.

“They don’t know how to advocate for their children,” she said. “They don’t have a frame of reference to weigh those things.”

Despite the obstacles, the panelists said, a patient and caring adult can help guide any student toward success.

“People matter,” panel moderator and Thomas College professor Pamela Thompson said. “Relationships matter.”

The panel was part of a day-long conference on Poverty In Maine at Thomas.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]