San Luis Obispo County Office of Education gets a lesson in ‘Poverty 101’

A prominent expert on poverty who dropped out of school as a teen but went on to earn a doctorate in education brought her experience to San Luis Obispo County on Friday.

Donna Beegle traveled to San Luis Obispo to train employees with the County Office of Education on how to recognize challenges of impoverished students and reach out to them so they stay in school and succeed.

County education officials say 27.4 percent of local students are on the free and reduced lunch program, a measure of poverty.

A family of four that earns $22,050 per year or less is under the poverty income level, according to federal guidelines.

Beegle, now in her 50s, pulled herself out of poverty as an adult after growing up in a migrant farm labor family and moving between Oregon, Washington and California.

She dropped out of school at 15 and got married to help her parents financially; she had two children and was a single mother without a job, education or skills by the time she was 25.

Beegle was encouraged by a program called Women in Transition in Portland, Ore., and within a decade, she earned her GED, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and a doctorate in education.

She is the founder and chief executive officer of Oregon-based Communication Across Barriers, a consulting firm dedicated to improving communication and relations across divides that include social class, race, gender and age.

Beegle said that it’s important for teachers and school staff to find out “the why” behind tardiness or not turning in homework.

“One of the keys to working with children who are living in poverty is convincing them that education can benefit them,” Beegle said. “Many kids don’t know anyone who gained from school.”

Beegle calls her training “Poverty 101.” She said basic information — such as encouraging proper use of language and talking about how much people who have college degrees earn versus those who don’t — can be powerful tools.

The County Office of Education and several local social service agencies are teaming up with Beegle for an event next February to help guide locals out of poverty.

The event will match impoverished participants with “navigators,” who will be volunteer professionals from the community, to advise them about areas of their life they are struggling with and how they might improve.

Beegle also encourages teachers to seek out social service resources that can help students and their families.

She gave a “Poverty 101” lesson to the county’s Department of Social Services last winter.

Julian Crocker, county schools superintendent, said that testing studies show English-language learners and low-income students struggle more compared with other students.

Crocker said that teachers sometimes know which students come from poor backgrounds, but identifying students who may be ashamed of their living conditions can be a challenge.

Through Beegle’s training, “we’ll learn how to communicate better with families in poverty and how to provide meaningful help,” Crocker said. “A successful school experience for a child in poverty is one of the best ways to break the cycle of poverty for that child.”