BRISTOL, Va. - According to the Virginia Department of Education, 65 percent of students in the Bristol, Virginia public school system receive either free or reduced lunches.
Federal guidelines for lunch help in the state put income at $30,615 for a family of four. This works out to $589 a week; just under $15 an hour for a 40-hour week.
Bristol, Virginia school superintendent Dr. Rex Gearheart says more than 50 percent of students in Region 7, the 19 school division in far southwest Virginia, live in poverty.
Dr. Ruby Payne, an educator for 42 years who for the last 18 has been teaching teachers how to help underprivileged students, said poverty is a systemic problem. "If you grow up with few resources, in poverty, you don't know how to negotiate an institution like school," Payne told News 5.
Dr. Payne was in Bristol Thursday to share resources with teachers gathered at Virginia High School. Her program focuses on how to deal with impoverished students on a daily basis.
Payne believes helping students to break the poverty cycle starts at the top. "We're interested in how you help people get ahead, and that means you have to give a knowledge base to not only the children, but to the adults as well," said Payne.
Ashley Haga, a special education teacher at Van Pelt Elementary School in Bristol says viewing students as more than a test score. is where to start. "You have to build a relationship before you can actually teach them. You have to know where they came from and you have to know their background and what they are capable of learning," said Haga.
She believes this means showing students they matter to teachers, and shared a story of one of her students, a first grader, who was struggling. "Really all he needed was love. And that's all I was really able to show him, and show that there was someone out there that cared. When he realized that I did care he showed me that he could learn," said Haga.
Even community leaders know that reaching a student now can pay dividends later. Bristol, Virginia Councilman Jim Steele says part of his job in the council chambers is making sure teachers have the best resources possible. "These kids get an education, be able to get a job, you can get out of the poverty line," said Steele.
This is a startling fact -- the Virginia Department of Education reports that 41 percent of students in Virginia are eligible for free or reduced lunch.That works out to 1.2 million kids and teenagers.