An Unlevel Playing Field:
Preschoolers Pay for Poverty
With a nearly 20% poverty rate among Arizona children, families often rely on their local public school in ways beyond providing a quality education. As a result, teachers must ensure basic needs such as nutrition and safety are met before focusing on academics. This piece focuses on students in poverty. Read our 8-part series to learn how teachers are managing as first responders to child poverty and why increased education funding is necessary to meet this crisis. Read our last piece titled A Student’s Perspective on Surviving Poverty.
Emily Meschter Early Learning Center
First Day of Preschool
On Zachary’s first day of Preschool, he pulled on my pant leg to get my attention during “Free Explore”. As soon as I’d knelt down he met my eyes squarely and asserted, “I’m not small.” Perhaps this was a reaction to my excited remarks about how I’d had both of his siblings in my class, and had met him as a baby. Maybe he had already registered that at nearly four years old, he stood a solid two inches below most of the three-year-olds in the class – none of whom wore baggy, handed down clothes they were expected to grow into. As an Early Childhood educator, I knew to pay attention. At that moment, and in all his moments in my classroom, Zachary was big.
He was big when instead of a high five walking into the room, he asked for something to eat. He was big when he napped on the squishy beanbag chairs instead of reading. He was big when he used modeling clay to make toys to bring home to play with. But as much as my teacher heart saw how much he’d grown in confidence and independence, my educator brain recognized that Zachary wasn’t growing academically to satisfy benchmarks. Like all young children, he had been enrolled in preschool to meet the needs of his mind and spirit; creativity, inquiry, problem solving. But out of necessity he had spent much of his time there addressing the needs of his body; nutrition, rest, safety.
My classroom has always been a place where young children are celebrated and nurtured. I will never regret letting Zachary fill up on graham crackers or catch up on the sleep he lost when his single parent returned from work late at night. But I will always begrudge the cost of development he and every child living and learning in poverty is forced to pay, the extra mile they run every day just to make it to the starting line. If the social contract we’ve written says that a child’s public education is returned in their contribution to communities, what improvements to society have we sacrificed by allowing children to start their school careers hungry and tired? Why does Zachary have to work so hard to be big, when he could be phenomenal?
These stories were collected by Save Our Schools Arizona and printed previously as part of a project series with AZ Central. All stories are true, but names of students have been changed to protect privacy.