Students in the lowest socio-economic class do poorly in school and the labor market.  How difficult is it to help youngsters or their families move to higher levels? Despite the inspiring scenario in the Broadway play, “My Fair Lady,” it’s takes more than diction lessons to move up.

Is it even possible? Anything is possible, but let’s take Keiko. He was born into a very poor, single-parent family and the initial obstacle he faces is in the first 12 months of his life. Unknown to him, this is a time when his brain will experience more changes than at any other time in his life span. If he suffers physical or emotional abuse, his brain will not develop properly.

Neuropsychologists at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, report that just having a mother suddenly change her facial expression from one of love and sympathy to a frowning scowl sends the infant brain into spasms that can be measured on an MRI. If Keiko’s mother doesn’t have the time or capacity to give him a fairly reliable, consistent, and nurturing emotional environment, he is already headed for big trouble when it comes to academics and self-control. And additional help in prekindergarten or a Head Start program comes much too late to really make a long-term difference.

Keiko also needs help with self-control. This often requires a family with both parents in the home. It takes a coordinated effort to establish routines and teach frustration tolerance. Kids who don’t develop self-control at an early age have difficulties with both academics and behavior as adults. Having an absentee father lurking about doesn’t help matters, either.

His next obstacle is his school. Since the best public school teachers, equipment, and materials are found in wealthy neighborhoods, it’s highly probable that Keiko’s school is inferior. There are other educational options, but his single-parent mother may not have the time or resources to provide them. Public school systems have magnet schools, fundamental schools, charter schools, and other options, but getting into these exceptional programs is sometimes daunting.

They require navigation through a rather complex application system in order to enter early lotteries. In one of these elementary schools in a Florida county, only 60 out of 550 applicants were accepted. In a middle school, 60 students were accepted from a pool of 168 applications. Many of these schools, including voucher schools, require private transportation, which is not available to Keiko’s mom.

Another obstacle is the neighborhood itself. Keiko not only lives in a poor neighborhood, but the high percentage of kids in his peer group who are also experiencing physical, nutritional, and emotional handicaps increase his problems. The kids whose parents have the resources, gumption, or fortitude to get them enrolled in better schools and other city services tend to be creamed off, leaving a residue of frustrated kids in Keiko’s peer group. Drugs are easily available on the street.

Even if his school is average and classroom behavior is mostly under control, Keiko will suffer because many teacher assignments today require computers and online access. Keiko has to search his neighborhood to find a Wi-Fi connection. Also, “flipped classrooms” where students are exposed to basic courses at home through the utilization of videos and online work in order to leave more time in the classroom for special projects, won’t help. He doesn’t have digital access and his mother doesn’t have the time or energy to help him. She works part-time and must care for his two siblings.

At this point, Keiko doesn’t demonstrate the type of mental ability or motivation needed for advanced academic work, but well-meaning politicians and intellectuals insist that all kids are the same and all should be capable of a Harvard education. Anyone opposing this stance is labeled a bigot and a racist. This is nonsense, of course, but Keiko is caught in this trap. He would prefer some career education, beginning in middle school, and eventual access to the job market, but instead is assaulted with abstract academic courses and mandated state achievement tests. All of this lowers his self-esteem and is emotionally damaging.

Anything else? Unfortunately, this is a depressing picture and there are no easy fixes.  Occasionally, a child survives this wretched beginning and emerges to do exceptionally well in academics or business. We all hear about people from poor backgrounds who have made it, but this was before we systematically creamed off the “best” kids to other schools. These exceptional cases are the result of intact families or stability and support coming from loving grandparents and/or other family members.

What’s to be done? It would help significantly if other parent figures could offer consistency during the first 12 months of life.  This could include grandparents, volunteers, and even that “lurking” biological father. Other volunteers could provide transportation and know-how to get children like Keiko into better school environments such as magnets and voucher schools. They could also serve as role models. School- sponsored tutoring usually helps.

Unless he is a high achiever and really wants an entirely academic school program, Keiko should have exposure to a variety of modern and advanced career programs. This is the path to a decent job and career, but if he still retains a discernable dialect, poor posture and appearance it makes employment difficult. “Dress for success” is not just a cute slogan. If Keiko finds a way forward, it’s likely that his children will move up and enjoy the benefits that come with a higher socioeconomic environment

Vietnam Oceania 127All of this is discouraging, but as long as well-meaning school reformers and members of the upper class pick up all the marbles for their college-bound kids, it won’t change.