Top 5 Things on Students' Back-to-School List

Think of a back-to-school shopping supply list. Does it look something like this?

  • Binders
  • Pens/Pencils
  • Highlighters
  • Notebooks

Pretty simple. Just go to your local Staples, CVS or Target; or simpler still, hop online and click to order from a company like Amazon.

Unfortunately, the school needs of millions of low-income Americans are even more basic. Remember the adage that half the battle is showing up? Absenteeism is a disproportionately large problem for students from poor households, according to new research from scholars at Johns Hopkins. Another new study, unsurprisingly, shows that chronic absenteeism tends to reduce academic achievement.
The reason these students are late is tied up with their families' money struggles. A recent op-ed piece in the New York Times illustrates the interaction of poverty and absenteeism in persuasive detail.

We are in the midst of a massive movement for school reform. That is all well and good, but we must take care not to draw artificial boundaries between school and home. Problems at home don't just disappear at the school's doorstep, and vice versa.

For example, when a parent can't provide a child with a nutritious breakfast, her learning at school is going to suffer. That's just common sense: have you ever tried to focus or learn something new when you're hungry?

The problem begins when kids are young, but it's by no means limited to school education. Students in higher education face the same dilemma, and again are often presented with the same false dichotomy between "life aid" and "school aid."

Ask someone who's attended community college. There's a greater than 50 percent chance that s/he had to drop out because of financial strains. It's not because they're lazy or uninspired by their classes; it's because their needs are as basic as ensuring there's food on the table. (I'm not being dramatic here: we learned this past week that 1 in 6 Americans goes hungry.)

To allow students of all ages to go back to school and succeed, today's back-to-school list should include guidance and the latest information on benefits, resources and services. It would look something like this:

  • Financial aid
  • Food
  • Health care
  • Child care
  • Cash assistance
  • Financial counseling

When we adjust the list to reflect today's demands, we make it more likely that students will persist through all levels of education and stay just that -- students. That's better for them, better for their families, and -- with an ultimately greater complement of educated and qualified workers who pay taxes -- better for our economy and our society.

It's also crucial to the preservation of the American Dream. Richard Reeves of the Center on Children and Families has an eye-opening video showing how (un)likely you are to make it to the top 20 percent of earners if you born in the bottom 20 percent. The three most powerful variables are being white, being the child of married parents, and completing a four-year college degree.

We can't control the first two factors. But we can create an environment in which poor students, from kindergarten to college, have the financial means to study well and stick it out.

Anything less, alas, is little more than posturing with good intentions.