I mentioned in a recent column about parenting and success of low-income students that if we want to delve into the topic we need to go into the divide. I was referring to writer Paul Tough's observation that the difference between the kids who make it and kids who don't "starts in the very first years of life."

Tough was summarizing research demonstrating how the first few years of a child's brain development, and specifically, language development, are critical to his or her later success in school. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that these are the years, from birth to 3, when no one has greater influence on children than their parents.

When Tough talks about a divide, he speaks not only of the lack of access to information and resources that separates low- and middle-income families. He means research in the 1990s that found:

By age 3, the spoken vocabularies of children of professional (middle- and upper-middle income) families are larger than the vocabularies used by **parents in welfare families.**

And this: In upper-middle income homes, children hear 2,153 words per hour compared with 1,251 per hour in working-class homes and 611 in welfare homes.

And this: Children in upper-middle class homes hear 32 "affirmative" words per hour compared with 12 per hour in working-class homes and seven per hour in welfare homes.

That's the divide we must enter. It is what I saw during the year I spent writing about the block in southwest Denver I called Border Street. Race, ethnicity, legal status didn't matter. All the parents of young children on the block were young themselves and living on welfare or earning poverty-level wages. Few had books in the house. Most kept the TV on constantly.

I tiptoe now into tricky territory, where observation and judgment become hard to distinguish. A reader told me I was painting low-income families with too broad a brush. He noted there are many "families of humble means who instill their children with a love of learning and a desire to excel.

"The best thing we can do for underprivileged children, I believe, is to spend what it takes to find out why some parents in a particular socio-economic group will encourage their children to learn and others in the same group won't and then develop programs that will help the 'non-encouragers' change."

Point taken. Generalities do a disservice to individuals within a group. But I don't want to lose sight of the fact that the parent-education divide is real and significant. The conversation we'll have this school year is not an indictment of welfare or lower-income parents, most of whom want what every parent wants: for their children to succeed, to find more in life than struggle. It is a call to recognize that many of these same parents simply do not know how to help their children reach that goal. They do not know a bedtime story every night isn't just a nice thing to do. It can help change a child's future.

I attended the 25th-anniversary luncheon for Florence Crittenton School last week. The original Florence Crittenton, you longtimers know, was a home for unwed mothers. It closed in 1981.

Florence Crittenton is now a school for teen mothers. It has had a long-running program for young fathers, as well. The school is a partnership of the nonprofit Parent Pathways and Denver Public Schools. Its students are pregnant teens and young mothers who have chosen to stay in school, who want to graduate. Along with academic instruction, they are immersed in parent and early childhood education.

I have been left both inspired and brokenhearted by the young mothers at Flo-Crit. Inspired by their perseverance, by their determination to provide for their children. Brokenhearted by their youth and how little they understood the difficulty of life as a teen parent. In seeking someone to love or in desiring to be loved, they have risked consigning both themselves and their babies to poverty.

But, as DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg said at the luncheon, in a district that graduates roughly 50 percent of students who enter its schools, Florence Crittenton has a graduation rate of 93 percent. Its students leave not only better-prepared as young people, but as mothers.

I will leave you today with the words of Dorotha Hogue, who taught 22 years at the school:

"Hopelessness is the cruelest aspect of poverty. If you have no hope, if you believe you are nothing and offer nothing to anyone, then that is true poverty. I tried to show my students they had value, they had possibilities because I knew it would not just benefit them but their babies."

Hogue had a saying for this: "If the hand that rocks the cradle influences the world, then isn't it possible that the hand that guides the hand that rocks the cradle influences it too?"


Source: Denver Post – http://tinyurl.com/mnjv9n