Joel Hudson drives his pickup truck up and down streets around West High School.
He points to houses with boarded-up windows and crumbling porches – and to the bicycles and toys of children scattered around many front yards.
“A lot of people here work two jobs, work hard. And a number of them show up at West High to talk with us, because they care about their kids.”
He’s led West as principal for three years. It is a sunny Thursday afternoon, school just out, and spring blossoms are sprouting on trees.
Sometimes he makes his teachers come out to these neighborhoods surrounding the school near Lincoln and McLean Boulevard and knock on doors. He wants parents to meet them, he says. “But I want to get my faculty out of the building, and I want them to see where our children come from.”
Where they come from are neighborhoods where many parents work low-pay jobs and don’t have money enough for food, or doctors, or shoes, or eyeglasses so their children can learn how to read.
If the United Way folks come out here, Hudson says, they will find parents and kids eager to put that help to use.
And the United Way is about to come in there with $1 million.
Doing ‘something different’
There are many boarded-up houses around West, but also nice houses, gardens and good places to spend time – the bike trail along the nearby Arkansas River, Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, and the Delano business district with its coffee bars, bike shop and distinctive stores.
There’s also neighborhood pride, and people wanting to make a difference, said Pat Hanrahan, director of the United Way of the Plains.
Two years ago people and agencies in west Wichita applied for a federal Department of Education “Promise Neighborhood” grant that helps students in distressed neighborhoods.
They didn’t get it.
But by that time, Hanrahan and his staff were intrigued by people they’d met, who had asked for the United Way’s help in preparing the grant application.
“And by that time, I’d been thinking about something for a while,” Hanrahan said. “That we needed to do something different, beyond what we’ve been doing.”
In 2013, the United Way raised $15.6 million and used it to fund 87 programs at 36 agencies. Hanrahan’s staff also works with United Way’s 2-1-1 information line and the Volunteer Center.
“But I thought that just funding programs like we’ve been doing is no longer enough.”
So the United Way stuck with the west Wichita people they’d been talking to, even after the grant failed. “There was a real grassroots interest out there, and that was important to us,” he said.
Hanrahan set aside a million dollars for the West High area project without diminishing money given to the other charities they finance every year.
It was not easy. The 9/11 terror attacks in 2001 and then the 2008 recession took a heavy toll on giving to the United Way. In 2000, United Way raised $15 million. Fourteen years later, it raised about the same – $15.6 million.
Hanrahan plans to seek a consensus from west Wichita about what to do with it – and then start a focused effort “to see if we can really move the needle on graduation rates” at West High.
West High in 2012 had a graduation rate of about 73 percent, lower than the state average of 85 percent.
Poverty settles in
Karen Cravens moved into the West area about 19 years ago. “It was mostly elderly people. And then as they died or moved on, a lot of people who moved in were young people, with families, and what they could afford were the rental properties.”
Once the neighborhood began to turn over, the percentage of rental properties increased. According to research done by United Way of the Plains, rentals are more than 50 percent of the properties in ZIP codes 67203, 67213 and 67211, considerably higher than in ZIP codes west of those. Median income in those ZIP codes: slightly more than $30,000 in 67213 and 67211 and $38,000 in 67203.
Once poverty got a foothold, it grew there, even though people like Cravens saw a lot of energy and pride in many young families.
“It irritates the daylights out of me to hear people say, when they don’t really know, that people in poverty just spend their money on cigarettes and booze,” said Cravens, who serves as president of the Delano Neighborhood Association. “We live out here. There are some poor people like that, but there are a lot more working hard. And even if the parents really do make mistakes, you can’t say their kids asked for this.”
Some people who talked to the United Way staff were from agencies and schools that have tried for years to help the poor.
Teresa Rupp from Child Start Inc. tells how – after poverty gained a foothold – businesses began to leave. So now there is what sociologists call a “food desert,” an absence of stores that sell food, in neighborhoods where some people don’t have cars. There’s also an absence of doctor and dentist offices, because few can afford health care.
All these factors combine, and get worse with time, Rupp said. Poverty feeds on itself, she said. A kid who doesn’t get read to starts kindergarten already behind. A family struggling to pay bills gets evicted, so the child “sometimes goes to two or three different elementary schools in one year.” Rupp and educators say a lot of the problem of student truancy revolves around lack of health care.
Hudson said his son, now at Kansas State, had probably missed no more than a dozen days from illness in the years he spent in public school. “But that was because if he got strep throat or some other illness, we took him to a doctor, and he missed a day. But many families here can’t afford a doctor, so their kids with strep throat miss five or six days.”
Truancy is a big problem at West High, Hudson said. On any given day, as many as 20 percent of the students miss at least one class. About 13 percent miss full days.
“But when you dig deeper into what’s really going on, you find out that a lot of these families can’t afford doctors, so the kids when they get sick stay sick longer. Or you find out that the high school student stayed home because the younger sibling is sick, and the parents have to work, so the older child stays home. Or you find out that the high school student works a job to help the family make ends meet and doesn’t get enough sleep.”
Hudson is right, said Tammy Drew, who lives in the neighborhood around West. “Yes, there are run-down houses, but there is often a back story,” she said. “Some of these places are owned by elderly people, who have some challenges and issues about keeping up with repairs. Or you have a couple with kids who work so hard that they can’t keep their heads above water.”
Drew is a case manager at a Wichita rehabilitation hospital and a resident of the West High area for 21 years. She and her husband do not live in poverty, but volunteer in the area to help those who do.
She tutors two children in reading at Stanley Elementary, and her motive for that, besides that poor people need help, is that so many of those poor people try so hard to do right by their children. The parents of the second-grader and the third-grader Drew tutors “would do anything” to help their children, she said.
“A lot of people say the poor are freeloaders, but that’s not true,” said Julie Bettis, the principal at Harry Street Elementary School, which feeds into West. “The people from our neighborhoods, those are the people who wait on you when you go to the drive-through to eat. Some work several jobs, and at home they are so poor they are in constant survival mode, and when you’re in survival mode, education takes a back seat.”
Bettis noticed the same cause and effect with her elementary school students – and that illness was often tied to houses and homes. “We see substandard housing. Leaky windows. Lead paint. Mold. Families that don’t have good nutrition.”
Add the survival mode problem, and things get worse, she said: “Half to three fourths of our kindergarteners here come here that first year not even knowing there are such things as letters exist, or that letters make sounds. And they lack vocabulary because the words they hear most are no more than ‘sit down.’ ‘Shut up.’ ‘Get over here.’
“But people who want to blame these people need to know that they’d do a lot better if they helped figure out a way to help them. This is our future workforce, our future society, and the problems grow exponentially. But … I got into education because I thought if I could help one child, I would break that cycle, not only from that child but for that child’s children and grandchildren. And that is what happens. When you help one generation, you are affecting society for generations to come.”