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posted: 9/4/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial: School funding key in dealing with poverty levels

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

It's always best to find the silver lining in news that on first blush may be less than ideal. So it is with a report in Tuesday's Daily Herald that poverty rates in 83 suburban school districts rose an average of 18 percentage points from 2000 to 2012.

The five highest increases were between 42.9 percent and 53.3 percent and all were in what many consider to be well-to-do DuPage County. In many of those districts and those in other counties as well, double-digit percentage growth among their Hispanic student populations coincides with the increase in poverty rates.

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And that's where at least one superintendent sees the silver lining.

"Kids get better cultural experiences," said Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 Superintendent Art Fessler, of the district's burgeoning dual language program in which classrooms are composed of half native English and half native Spanish speakers. "It's like a microcosm of the real world, which will prepare kids to be successful in life."

Finding programs like that that help bridge the learning gap is key to making the change in demographics work throughout suburban school districts. Bensenville Elementary District 2, which saw the second highest increase in poverty rates, has put resources into more bilingual social workers and bilingual technology and reading specialists.

But the state's dismal fiscal condition makes those silver linings harder to come by. As staff writer Kimberly Pohl reported, districts have not received all of the funding they're due under the existing poverty grant funding formula. With poverty rates rising as they are, that portends more problems in the future for all students.

"(Low-income) kids need so much more when they walk in our doors," said James Stelter, Bensenville District 2's superintendent. "It's a catch-up game from day one."

But, he added, "Illinois still lags behind many other states in terms of providing equitable funding for children." So districts are finding it harder and harder to catch up and draining more and more resources with no improvement in funding in sight.

What can be done? Parents, for one, need to help school leaders in lobbying state legislators to help get the funding that is due. They also need to work with school boards to prioritize how that funding is spent. Finally, no matter their economic status, parents need to help their children succeed in the classroom by providing the support they need when they are at home.

By doing so, more and more districts can find those silver linings. And more and more suburban children, no matter where they live or what their socio-economic conditions are, get a quality education.

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