Preschool teacher Tammy Lozano helps a child put her straw into her juice box. Lozano says for many children the food they get at school is the only food they eat all day. Eighty four percent of the children at Killip elementary qualify for free and reduced meals.
“The worst moments I think are around holidays. There’s a lot of frustrations at home I’m sure with not being able to provide a meal for the holidays because school is out and they’re having to find child care because parents have to work,” says Lozano.
Flagstaff’s poverty rate has steadily climbed over the last decade. Today like the rest of the region, more than half of Flagstaff’s students are poor. The amount of state and federal funds per pupil averages about $6,000. In Massachusetts, home to some of the best schools in the country, students get more than twice that amount.
So Flagstaff educators trying to make the biggest impact with little funds have focused their efforts on two major populations -- toddlers and their parents.
Killip Elementary Principal Joe Gutierrez says too many students were coming into kindergarten unprepared, speaking little or no English. So he decided to use some of their federal dollars to open up a preschool.
“Many of our parents cannot afford to send their kids to preschool so they send them to childcare. There’s a great big difference between preschool and childcare,” says Gutierrez.
And for their parents the county just started offering moms and dads Parenting College. It’s currently funded by a local grant. The idea started in Harlem but was adapted for Flagstaff by Coconino County School Superintendent Robert Kelty. He says teaching parents about early childhood education is the key.
“We’ve designed our educational systems to not value the most important period of our educational mind. So how do you change that culture of perception? It’s going to take a long time. But right now I think what we did right was starting at the home. Let’s first start with empowering our parents with what they can do at home,” says Kelty.
Kelty, a former Arizona teacher of the year, is a bit of a visionary. He believes through programs like this, parents can change behaviors at home and prepare their children better for school.
“If you empower families with knowledge, behaviors will change. And if you empower people with community, people will not feel so isolated. And that type of community will also bring out the best in us,” he says.
Kelty hired Rene Hobbs to run the program. Hobbs says the moms and dads -- many of them teenagers -- discuss their own upbringing and how that influences their parenting decisions.
“Some students will express it as humor ‘oh yeah I used to get kicked and you know he was crazy.’ And then after 15 minutes more of the conversation she’s like, ‘you’re right that did impact me. There were times I wanted to commit suicide. Now I’ve realized that’s not ok to do and I’m empowering others telling my story so it doesn’t happen to them,’” says Hobs.
Another innovation: the school district is spending some of its federal dollars earmarked for poor students on a family resource center, where parents and kids can get their basic needs met. Many come for the free tutoring. Some come for much more -- showers, clothes, food. They can even do their laundry.
Rosie Mitchell and her 11-year-old daughter Lee Ann are homeless. They live in their car half of the year and in colder months stay with family. Across the room a volunteer helps Lee Ann with her math homework. Mom Rosie sits at a desk writing in a notebook.
MORALES: What are you working on if you don’t mind me asking?
MITCHELL: Vocabulary words so I can start teaching my daughter some of the words and all that.
MORALES: So you’re teaching yourself in order to help her?
MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah some of the words I didn’t even know.
Flagstaff educators believe it’s a two-pronged strategy working with parents as well as their children to eventually break the cycle of poverty.