A poverty of isolation entraps too many Georgia children

A past contributor to the Get Schooled blog, Tyler S. Thigpen is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A co-founder of Transforming Teaching, Thigpen is the former head of the upper school at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta, a co-founder of Chattahoochee Hills Charter School in southwest Atlanta, and a former Spanish teacher in Gwinnett.

He also is minister at a local Atlanta church and led international development in Peru in healthcare, education, poverty reduction, infrastructure and human rights. A husband and father of four, he holds a mid-career master's of public administration from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government and a master's of theological studies from Regent College of the University of British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter: @tylerthigpen.

By Tyler S. Thigpen

One evening, not long ago, I was waiting at the bus stop outside a grocery store near our home, when I heard the woman standing next to me yelling into her phone. She was clearly angry, upset and stressed out. I didn’t know her, so I’ll call her Mary.

It probably wasn’t my business, but I couldn’t help but overhear. Mary was a single mom with a long commute. She had a sick child who had been waiting in the nurse’s office at school since 9 that morning, and she had been stuck at work.

Her boss threatened to fire Mary if she left work early — even though her boss had taken the exact same liberty the week before. On the phone, Mary cried she had no one to pick up her daughter.

I saw Mary again a week later on the same bus. She had her two children with her, adorable 3-year-old twin girls. I thought of my own four young children as I tried to imagine what it was like for that 3-year-old, stuck feeling unwell at school without her mom or anyone else to get her home and into bed.

And it made me wonder, why do some families have to suffer these frustrations and heartaches? Who is ultimately responsible for making sure that children like Mary’s get the support they need?

Like anywhere else, leaders at the school and district levels in Georgia are strapped for resources. Elected officials’ plates are fuller than with education alone. Philanthropic organizations often focus narrowly on expected outcomes for segmented populations. Families are the traditional basic unit of child-rearing, and are naturally their children’s primary caregivers. But due to a number of complex pressures today, some families do not have the flexibility, resources, or community networks to let their children be children.

Thus, as a society, we reached a point where we accept, tacitly or not, that the responsibility of fully preparing all youth falls on the shoulders of no one. Too often we hear that problems such as Mary’s are none of our business and certainly not our responsibility.

The result is that too many kids fall through the cracks. It’s not necessarily that these children lack money or access to opportunities or education, though those are major contributors. The bigger challenge is some children are alone. They suffer from a poverty of isolation.

Now, I’m a big-picture thinker person. I like to envision “what if” scenarios, kind of like movie promos that start with “in a world…”

Dean Rohrer/NewsArt

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

So these questions came to mind: what if there was a group who reached out and shouldered the responsibility of supporting and protecting all children? What if there was a group that picked up where school leaders, city officials, philanthropists and even families left off by generating a web of caring relationships?

This made me think of when I was 12, and my parents told me if I wanted a car when I turned 16, I’d have to pay for it. So I started a little business in Tucker: Executive Lawn Care. I mowed dozens of lawns in the neighborhood over the next four years.

Just before my 16th birthday, I had enough money to buy my first car: a 1989 black Chevy Blazer — hands down, the best car I ever owned.

The way I saw it, I worked hard and sacrificed a lot of time. And now I enjoy working outside, I appreciate delayed gratification, and I’m comfortable tackling big projects. I am forever grateful to my parents for forcing me to be resourceful during that formative experience.

But there’s another way of looking at that story. The above is all true…and also a lot of people created opportunities that enabled me to be successful.

My parents loaned me their lawn mower. My neighbors gave an inexperienced middle-school kid their business over a professional landscaping company. My cousin drove me around in his minivan so I could expand my business. My grandfather counseled me on opening a bank account and saving money. All kinds of people helped me succeed with Executive Lawn Care and all the lessons it taught me.

What I’ve described is what researchers call social capital: the measure of our connections with others, the amount of emotional and practical support, of trust and help, that emerges from caring relationships. This was one of the many privileges I had growing up. In a world of well-developed social capital, I had a strong network — I had a community.

A large proportion of Georgia’s kids right now have just enough social capital to stay off the radar of the Department of Family and Children Services and Georgia Foster Care and Adoption. But they don’t have enough to be in a position to go after the same kinds of successes that I did.

Who are these kids? Some of them are among the 28 percent of children in Georgia — or the 40 percent in Atlanta — not graduating from high school each year. Or the 40 percent of young adults who have attended, but haven’t, graduated from college. Some are among the 40 percent of children in our state living in single-parent households, or the 5 percent living in a family with no parent at all.

2013 national report revealed Georgia is ranked among the bottom half, and often the bottom third, for all major civic health indicators (engagement in local institutions, politics, etc.), and almost all social-connectedness indicators (relationships among friends, neighbors, etc.) among millennials and low-income populations.

One exception is expressing opinions about community or political issues online, where we ranked sixth. Communities throughout Georgia may be poor in dollars, but rich in culture and relationships — and vice-versa. By my estimation, we already have more than enough of the resources we need to bridge the social-connectedness gap, especially as it pertains to the well-being of our children.

Here’s an example of how this might work. If you’re a high school freshman in Baltimore and you fail half or more of your classes, you qualify for programming by a nonprofit called Thread, which surrounds these students with four or five volunteer mentors who commit to seeing you throughout your high school career.

Thread, founded in 2004, has consistently achieved a 100-percent high school graduation success rate, 100-percent college acceptance rate, 92-percent college enrollment rate, and 83-percent college graduation rate — higher than the national average among all ethnic groups.

Even better, volunteers at Thread report being inspired by seeing positive changes in the lives of their students. They report that they learn just as much, if not more, from their students, that the volunteer work is sustainable because they can act as a team.

Could a program like Thread’s work in Georgia? Their approach is relatively uncomplicated — and it speaks to the strength of this type of intervention needed for some students to be successful beyond high school.

There are already great mentoring programs and adult-youth partnerships here in Georgia — Big Brother Big Sister, Just Us Girls, 100 Black Men, Reach GA, and many others — which can fit the bill on a short-term basis.

But some kids need longer-term support networks, relationships with trusted adults who will simply answer the phone or provide a ride to school, or sit down and do algebra or English homework with them.

The biggest downside of the poverty of isolation — when Mary’s children are stuck in a nurse’s office, feeling lost or forgotten — is that too many children grow up unable to offer their fullest potential, which is ultimately our loss. We don’t get to hear their ideas, their feelings, their dreams, their contributions to a better world.

It’s not too late. What if we used Georgia’s abundance of social capital to usher the newest generation of children to succeed? Because in a world where children feel fully supported, we ensure a better future for ourselves, too.