Breaking the Cycle

Another week, another study that ranks Louisiana in an extremely unflattering light. The 18th annual edition of America's Health Rankings: A Call to Action for People & Their Communities, produced by the United Health Foundation, American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention, ranks states in order from healthiest to least healthy. Louisiana came in 49th, with only our equally long-suffering neighbor Mississippi preventing us from claiming the cellar.

Louisiana's dismal showing has been such a regular occurrence for so long that it's a foregone conclusion. Read the annual surveys and reports on Louisiana's health care, education and economic opportunities for long enough, and it's like watching an endless loop of horror and slasher movies: After a while, you become so desensitized that nothing is shocking or surprising anymore.

If there were ever a study that should shake that numbness to our core, it's the newest findings from the Southern Education Foundation. The Georgia-based charity, established in 1867, has one mission: to improve educational excellence and equity in the South. Its latest research project, titled "A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South's Public Schools," reached the following conclusion:

Eighty-four percent of Louisiana public school students live at or below the poverty line.

This must be a mistake or a typographical error. It can't possibly be true that more than 8 out of every 10 students in Louisiana's public school system come from such economic hardship ' which frequently affects academic performance ' that he or she qualifies for a free or reduced lunch. Have we failed our children so miserably that we're a mere 16 percentage points away from a scenario where all public school students spends part of their day wondering where their next meal is coming from, or whether their family can pay the rent?

"One of the reasons that number is so high is as a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita," says Lauren Veasey, associate program officer for SEF. "When the students were reentered at other schools, they automatically qualified for free lunches, and now they're reclassified as low-income. The reality of the storms is they displaced not just students, but families who are still struggling after the storms."

There is no comfort in the post-storm spike. Katrina and Rita have only served to further compound a devastating legacy; when SEF conducted the same study just six years ago in 2000, it found 60 percent of Louisiana public school students at the poverty or low-income level.

The statistics for Lafayette Parish are an equally haunting indictment. According to February 2007 Louisiana Department of Education records, the number of at-risk K-12 students is 53.17 percent, with more than 13,000 students needing free lunches and more than 2,000 students needing reduced-price lunches. Surrounding parishes are also struggling: Iberia Parish has more than 64 percent of students at risk; Vermilion has 55 percent and Acadia has 64 percent.

Even the most bright-eyed optimist or generous statistician cannot escape a bleak reality: no matter how you look at the numbers, more than half of our local and statewide students face the crushing oppression of poverty.

For SEF's Veasey, part of the solution to reversing that trend is already in place. "We support efforts of increasing statewide pre-school programs like LA-4 to ensure that students are school-ready when they begin kindergarten," she says. "It's a matter of the state increasing the investment in the program and expanding access for students that are eligible for the LA-4 program."

The state-funded LA-4 (officially referred to as Louisiana Early Childhood Development and Enrichment Activity Classes) was first passed in 2001 and allows school districts to offer early childhood development and care classes for free to qualifying students. Under LA-4, programs are required to coordinate services for students and families to include health care, employment counseling, literacy services, tutoring or parental training when necessary. Students whose families' income levels surpass program requirements may also participate if their parents pay tuition.

Without prompting, Lafayette Parish Superintendent Burnell Lemoine cites L-4 as a crucial building block. "It's made a tremendous difference," he says. "Kids are getting the assistance they need to help them to be successful. There's both before- and after-school care, and it helps them with homework and getting them prepared for the day." A social worker is in place at N.P. Moss for the program's health care requirements, and Lemoine wants to see the program added to Lafayette's elementary school feeder systems. However, his voice trails off at the bureaucracy involved in such a move. "There's so many hoops you have to jump through to get that done," he says.

Lemoine and Veasey are not isolated voices. One of the cornerstones of Blueprint Louisiana's ongoing reform effort is its mission to "expand pre-kindergarten access to all 4-year-olds, and coordinate early childhood programs to establish one high-quality system." Under the current system, only 60 percent of our state's 4-year-olds are enrolled in LA-4 for 2007-2008, leaving behind thousands of children eligible for the program. "The Legislature should expand voluntary, high-quality pre-kindergarten to provide access to all 4-year-olds in the state," Blueprint writes in its mission statement. Sixty-eight candidates who signed Blueprint's reform pledge have been elected to the Legislature, with an additional 71 Blueprint candidates in the Nov. 17 runoff election.

Louisiana has no better opportunity than the present to break the cycle of at-risk students in our public school systems. Parents, legislators, school system employees and Louisiana residents alike need to sound the clarion call for widespread expansion and outreach of the LA-4 program. It's been proven time and time again that the older they get, the harder it is to reach and help at-risk students. We need to help the most vulnerable of Louisiana's public school students now ' before they wind up as forgotten statistics.