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Arriving for midnight classes at Bunker Hill Community College in September, 2009. (AP photo)

First feed the face and then talk higher ed

COMMENTARY | March 28, 2012

Students’ Dickensian hunger and poverty are everyday features and concerns for educator Wick Sloane at his community college – and by extension, in many places like it. He proposes paying students to study, cash incentives for going to the library.

By Wick Sloane

This year, before I can address critical thinking and workforce skills, my students need to eat. I have a plan.
For Pell-eligible students, (poor), flip the $978 million Federal Work-Study Program (FWS) into the Study-Work Program (FSW). Pay students $10 an hour, ten hours a week to study in designated, supervised places at the community college or in a public library. The students swipe a card on the way in and out. They are paid electronically each week for their study time the previous week. Cap payments at $1,200 per semester.

Students have been crying in my office at Bunker Hill Community College every week since September and, some weeks, every day. Hungry. Often homeless. Often jobless.

One who was hungry and nearly homeless had an A in calculus. “Have you eaten today?” is a question I use more often than “Do you need help with your homework?” She wouldn’t say. As the student cried in my office and spoke with a gentle colleague, I bought a sandwich, some fruit, and a bottle of orange juice from the cafeteria. The student drank the juice and put the food in her bag to take home. The student had a class and said she’d return later in the afternoon to finish the conversation. With $25 from my colleague in my pocket, I walked to Johnnie’s Foodmaster in Charlestown and bought a $50 food card that we gave to the student later. She cried again.

Some days, I have vouchers for a meal in the cafeteria. If you want to feel helpless or hopeless or just plain stupid, you can’t beat seeing a human being cry because you just gave them a meal in a cafeteria.

Need more evidence that hunger is a problem in U.S. higher education today? A few weeks ago, two of the finest professors I know who are teaching the community college population and I had lunch with a thoughtful, innovative state official. Talking education? Nope. The three of us were learning how to open and operate a food bank on the campus.

Even more evidence? In January, I participated in (the excellent) "Improving Performance: Infusing Technology into Higher Education,” a discussion the Center for American Progress and Educause convened in Washington.  I reported that the top technological innovation I’ve infused into higher education this year is the new Massachusetts website, Getting SNAP. 

That’s “Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program” -- food stamps. I’ve helped more students with food stamps this year than with College Writing 1.

A bid for the $978 million in Federal Work Study funding requires some evidence, I know. Here’s mine. I put myself into these community college classrooms five years ago because I was weary from senior-level higher ed meetings about access to college for the poor. I mean the meetings with white tablecloths, free coffee, all-you-can-eat trays of sandwiches, and those sweaty pitchers of ice water on every table. No one had a clue about the actual needs of these students, as customers. Including me. Red Bull and T-Mobile must know more about these students, this market, than either I or anyone in higher ed did.

Hundreds of students have since passed through my windowless basement classrooms, most at 7 a.m., some at midnight. One student was shot and killed, and I testified at the third trial of his killers. Another will graduate from Dartmouth College in June. One wrote an essay Bedford-St. Martins published in a textbook. He vanished in 2008, because he had to work. A few weeks ago, I found his 2008 cell phone number on a card buried in a desk drawer. Infusing technology into higher education, I texted, “Why aren’t you back in school?” An instant reply, “Who is this????”  We corresponded, and he has enrolled for the fall.

He’s been working as a tutor in a South Boston child-care center.  He’s now angry about how little math these elementary school children are learning.  He wants to be a math teacher.

I’ll skip euphemisms to spell this out:

Senator Kerry, Senator Scott Brown, Senator Sherrod Brown (we met, remember?), Congressman Mike Capuano, Congresswoman Virginia Foxx and your Education and the Worksforce Committee staffer Amy Jones.  Attention all U.S. senators and members of Congress concerned about the U.S. economy and global competitiveness:  I have a dedicated African-American male from Dorchester who has published a story in a textbook and who wants to become a math teacher. Will we, the people, let his need to earn money for food stall his education?  Help!

All I know for certain is that as of this morning, my Federal Study-Work proposition is as politically hopeless as it is technically and fiscally simple. Hunger and poverty are topics too squeamish for the high tables of policy and higher education. Everyone with a keyboard or podium loves to hammer community colleges for low graduation rates. I’m sure I’ve missed something, but grinding Dickensian hunger and poverty never arises as a cause for stopping school. Up here, the $750 million Boston Foundation has joined the mob with a skimpy report bereft of evidence for either its conclusions or its solution.

What solution? Reorganize... (Full disclosure:  Yes, I am seething that the Boston Foundation ignored my suggestions that the report consider poverty, cuts in Pell Grant funding, and federal Medicaid decisions as at least factors in whether community college students have a prayer of success.)

Hunger and poverty remain too squeamish for my lobby, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). The AACC doesn’t know how many of its campuses have food banks.  (I’ve visited the one at Kingsborough Community College in New York City.)  The agenda for the annual meeting next month (Orlando, where else?) has no events addressing hunger or poverty. (Note to AACC President Walter Bumphus: Would you ship my students any leftover food from the April 22 Poolside Reception? Thanks.) Remember, the Republicans have begun yet another offensive against Pell Grants, the key aid my students use for tuition and, as possible, food.

I know all with a grant and a window office can out-data me. I do pray most days for ideas better than mine. However, I have taught hundreds of students now and talked with incredible colleagues beside me in the trenches. The tradeoff for many able students is cash from hours at work vs. unpaid hours in class and studying. Who knows the exact number, but my colleagues agree that even three or four more hours to study a week for these students could make the difference between completing their degree or not.

Why Study-Work? In five years of observations, nothing impedes my students more than lack of time and a quiet place to study. An hour studying can create human capital, a building block toward a career and a robust economy. An hour working at McDonald's or Dunkin’ Donuts creates burgers or doughnuts. My most experienced colleagues agree that as little as four or five extra study hours a week per student would change the outcome for at least thousands of students on our campus.  I’ll settle for $100 million of the $978 FWS budget for a pilot starting this fall paying students to study ten hours a week.

Next question.  Is my Federal Study-Work proposal, in a word, deranged?
I took the question to my favorite, “Yes, we can fix this crazy world” Jedi knights, Yale professors Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres. (The two are authors of, among other works, Why Not? How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small.)  They showed me that helping the poor invest in human capital to outwit the vicious cycles of poverty is an alive-and-well practice. Ayres directed me to Oportunidas, the principle anti-poverty program in Mexico. See for yourself. More than 4.5 million families benefit from the program which focuses on education, health and nutrition. In Ayres new book, Carrots and Sticks, I discovered “Dollars for Scholars” from Edlabs at Harvard.

An Edlabs finding:
“Through a series of multi-city innovations, we found that cash incentives are a cost-effective way to increase student achievement. Well designed financial incentive programs are just as effective as other successful education reforms of the past three decades at a fraction of the cost.”|

For now, the benefits of keeping my College Writing 1 class in a classroom with computers and printers, no food allowed, outweighs using another classroom where I could bring food. Last week was spring break. I continued my practice of offering class during spring break. My students don’t go to Daytona. With computers down for maintenance, we met in the lobby. Each morning at 7 a.m., students were waiting for me. When the cafeteria opened at 7:30 a.m., I bought them all breakfast.

This essay first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.

Thank you
Posted by Katikam
04/10/2012, 06:07 PM

Thank you Wick Sloane. Your article brought tears to my eye. You're the sort of human being that gives us hope in the midst of a cruel and stupid world.

Thank you thank you thank you

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