A poison lurks in the veins of our urban school systems. For years, it has stealthily managed to hinder every conceivable attempt by school authorities to push poor kids toward academic excellence.
A 1996 study Ñ titled 'Portland's Silent Epidemic' Ñ by the Urban League of Portland says that low-income and minority kids are three times more likely to be poisoned by lead. The Mount Sinai School of Medicine's Center for Children's Health and the Environment has a fact sheet on its Web site that says, 'Lead is the most well-studied example of an environmental contaminant that interferes with learning.'
In spite of its deadly potential to dumb down our young ones, there has been no concerted effort to mount a campaign against lead poisoning by anyone in a position to effect change.
Unfortunately, the road to closing the achievement gap for minority and poor students is littered with hydra-headed demons, and lead poisoning is one of them. It would require the might of all who care about our children to catapult this issue to the forefront. Instead, activists, union leaders and school administrators are engaged in endless blame games.
The dreaded truth is that there seems to be a strong correlation between high incidents of lead poisoning in North and Northeast Portland, and the learning and behavior problems of low-income and minority students in many of the area's schools.
Research by scientists and epidemiologists reveals that nearly one of every 10 Hispanic, Native American or black children residing in Oregon have concentrations of lead in their blood greater than the federally acceptable level.
Experts say even low concentrations of lead can contribute to antisocial behavior, such as hyperactivity, delinquency and aggression. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, childhood lead poisoning causes reduced educational achievement because of both attention and leaning disabilities.
With all this knowledge, why are school policy-makers, activists and union leaders not demanding more screening? Why aren't they clamoring for a better lead reduction policy from our political leaders? Considering the effect that lead poisoning has on our children's abilities to learn, why are parents not demanding action?
Even though the Oregon Health Department requires that all children be screened for lead poisoning at 12 months and again at 24 months, currently very few among those exposed to lead hazards are -being tested.
Since 1993, Medicaid providers have been required by federal law to screen children under 6 years old. Despite the requirement, in 1995 Medicaid doctors in Oregon tested fewer than 10 percent of the children who should have been screened for lead poisoning. And eight years later, the story remains the same.
To ignore this problem is nonsense. Those funded by federal dollars to reduce lead hazards in our communities are doing their best, but sadly the size of this issue has dwarfed their efforts.
There is very little any teacher can do to elevate the achievement of a minority child whose brain is hindered by lead poisoning. But there is something minority and poor parents can do: They should demand a priority change by insisting that this issue be part of the Portland school board's achievement plan.
Maybe someone would then take notice. Otherwise, our struggle to close the academic achievement gap for poor children will continue to fail because of this poisonous spell.