By Mannix Porterfield
All the vast education reforms the Legislature could possibly produce in the weeks ahead are destined to fail unless West Virginia comes to grip with children mired in the futility of poverty.
So believes Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, as he steers the Select Committee on Children and Poverty across the Mountain State.
A major hindrance to improving education is the failure to consider the 91 percent of the time a child isn’t inside a classroom, says Unger.
“We can have the best schools, the best facilities, the most modern technology, the best teachers in the classroom and the best curriculum you could ever have,” he said Friday.
“And you can have the child sitting in that seat physically, but mentally they’re not there.”
Instead, the poor child is agonizing over the source of his next meal, what home he reports to, if, indeed, there is a home to which he can report.
“So, if a child is not present totally, then that child is not going to perform,” the majority leader said.
Unger spoke of “toxic stress” identified by scientific research — not the typical fretting over school exams, but the very real fear of survival, on a day-to-day basis, and food is a major ingredient in such worries.
This stress is critical from the day a child enters the world through the age of 8, he said.
“And if that weighing on them actually creates a problem for the development of their cognizant ability or thinking ability, there sets in motion and locks them in after the eighth year, rewires their mind, and it’s difficult to undo,” Unger said.
“My whole argument is, if you have a healthy child, you have a healthy family. If you have a healthy family, you have a healthy community. With healthy communities, you have a healthy state. It starts right there with that child.”
Unger’s committee is conducting its first road hearing Wednesday in Oak Hill, anchored by Sens. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier.
That is to be followed by a second one March 20 at the Commission on Aging in Beckley, hosted by Sens. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, and Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming.
Unger alluded to various efforts in this session to deal with overcrowded prisons, teenage pregnancies, drug abuse and other social ills, suggesting their genesis is in childhood poverty.
“Think about what savings we could have if we just re-invested on the front end, to make sure when that child is developing, he doesn’t end up down the road that way,” he said.
“This is an investment in a future that’s healthier.”
Otherwise, the child is en route to a dim future, with poor nutrition that leads to myriad problems, not the least of which is diabetes.
West Virginia ranks 49th in education, but the state is only two rungs above that in health, the senator said.
“Where does it stem from?” he asked. “Right here, from zero to 8 years old.”
Whether some sort of 12-point plan emerges once the committee touches base in all 17 senatorial districts is difficult to say.
“More importantly, we want to change the culture,” Unger said.
And to get there, he said, the committee chairs and others making up the newly formed panel must try to view life through the eyes of a child.
Unger hopes to see a holistic view, drawing on the public and private sectors alike, to develop this culture alteration so that a child isn’t doomed at his first cry to a life of misery and failure.
“I’m convinced, theologically, that God has given us all the resources we need,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of figuring out how we use it to the maximum and also working together to address those issues.”
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