As a first-generation college student, Patsy Koch Johns is no stranger to the educational barriers faced by low-income students, and she is well aware of the extraordinary power of education to improve the lives of at-risk students. Since 8th grade, when she began teaching elementary students how to read, Koch Johns has watched thousands of students pass through her classroom, encouraging them and pushing them to seek a greatness and better life. As she will tell you, there are many success stories. But there are also quite a few children that slip through the cracks in the education system, and Koch Johns has refused to leave them behind.
Children are hit hardest by the consequences of poverty, and this is often reflected in their academic record. According to 2015 Face of Poverty report by the Lancaster County’s Center for People in Need, over half of families surveyed reported that they sometimes or always go without prescription medication because they lack the money to pay for it, which may delay a child’s return to school by multiple days. Many impoverished parents cannot afford to take time off work to care for a sick child, and childcare is often so expensive that it cannot be considered an option in the first place.
The constant, relentless barrage of day-to-day stressors also presents a barrier to equal education that goes beyond the easily measurable effects such as absenteeism and lower test scores. A 2012 NIH research suggests that the constant nature of poverty-related stressors can impair “high cognitive functions such as planning, impulse and emotional control, and attention.” This inequality, which starts as early as kindergarten, can cause emotional and behavioral problems for individuals later in life.
But the right education, especially the arts, can offer an escape. “In sixth grade…I became the Wicked Witch in the Cobbler of Fairyland,” remembers Koch Johns in her 2014 TedxLincoln talk ‘The Gentle Truth with No Blarney’. “I could make people laugh at my command! Not at me, but because of me. I was speaking from a position of significance.”
This significance is a key component in her most recent project; a series of videos compiled into a short film entitled Poverty: Not a Choice. The videos feature nine students, speaking to the camera alone or in small groups, about their individual and collective struggles with transience, physical disability, societal perception, and how poverty weaves its way into a the fabric of their lives. Poverty: Not a Choice, which aired several times on NET and received an award at the Newfilmakersia March Showcase in Los Angeles earlier this year, gave these students a platform and amplified their voices so they could be recognized as the people behind the numbers and statistics.
“My experience working with [Koch Johns] was absolutely phenomenal,” says Tiauna Lewis, who graduated from Lincoln High in 2015 and is now finishing her freshman year on a full scholarship at Swarthmore College, an elite liberal arts school near Philadelphia. “She reached out to me, knowing I was a person who would identify with the message of Poverty: Not a Choice, and knowing I would enjoy the project…She welcomed us into her home and provided us all with so much kindness and support. For me, she helped me embrace my upbringing in poverty so I no longer felt shame.”
Lewis, who discusses her family’s struggles with insecure housing and bills in her video Adventures, says she wishes more people knew the human stories behind the poverty statistics. For Koch Johns, listening to students is where education starts. “Listening is one of the simplest and most honorable ways to demonstrate you value another person. As a teacher it is an invaluable skill. We hardly know what to do when people stop, sit down, look at us and listen to us. In education I enjoyed giving this gift and in turn receiving it.”
Lewis agrees. “Education has become a lot about standardization and less about listening to the individual lives of students…I want people to know that [Koch Johns] is easily one of the most compassionate and motivated people I have ever met. She is unbreakable in our community, and I have never met an educator so enthusiastic about the success and potential of young people.
Lincoln High Graduate, 2011
Recently Graduated Swarthmore College with a B.A. in History
Presently lives and works in Lincoln
You can follow Eve at roguemidwesterner.wordpress.com where she blogs on her take on current events and other things.