Wright Elementary student Jacob Felix, 10, draws a tree cross-section as Pamela Pelletier, not pictured, from the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research discusses the subject. She was visiting the school as part of a program that brings in scientists.


Graduating fifth-graders at a school in one of Tucson's poorest areas gave a common response when asked to draw their most memorable moment of the year.

They turned in pictures of a brain, a spaceship, the solar system, a nurse and patient, and Albert Einstein. Several spelled out an acronym they'd learned - STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The artwork is testament to a citizen-school partnership at John B. Wright Elementary School in midtown Tucson that brings leading local scientists into the classroom and exposes students to real-life possibilities they wouldn't normally see. Those scientists have included an international tree-ring expert, a solar power researcher, an astronomer and a neurosurgeon.

No single person can reverse Tucson's poverty. But the visiting scientist program at Wright, spurred by one woman who decided to help, is evidence that even something that starts small can have a great impact.

It's too early to tell whether such exposure will have a lasting effect on the students. But the enthusiasm the children have for the scientists is genuine. They ask for autographs and rarely have to be told to be quiet during presentations. Their thank you notes to visitors are careful and thoughtful.

The city of Tucson has 219 mobile home parks that can hold 17,762 trailers, and many of them are near Wright Elementary. A full 98 percent of students here qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning their families live in or near poverty. For some kids, meals in the cafeteria are the only food they get all day.

So many students were showing up in dirty uniforms that the school used donations to buy a stackable washer and dryer. The principal and office staffers do two to four loads of laundry per day.

A supply of donated uniforms is always on hand for students to wear while their own are being cleaned. Those uniforms also outfit kids whose parents can't afford to buy them.

Every day, a school bus picks up children from local shelters and brings them to Wright. The bus is provided through the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which ensures homeless children get to and from school.

With too-few high-paying jobs, too many fractured families and a lack of political will for change, Tucson has long been poor. The recession made life worse for our poorest residents, but even as other hard-hit areas recover, Tucson is still hurting.

Children are suffering the most. One in three kids inside city limits lives in poverty. Statewide, the rate is one in four. Nationwide, it's one in five.

Growing up poor dims kids' chances of success as adults - and having so much poverty makes it less likely Tucson can build a healthier economy. The chaos that comes with unstable housing, spotty school attendance and limited access to nutritious food and health care makes it more likely kids will grow up to be unemployed, unhealthy and in trouble with the law - in short, the responsibility of taxpayers.

The teachers at Wright Elementary, 4300 E. Linden St., are determined their students will escape that fate. And Tucson businesswoman Kathleen Perkins is there to help and support them.

"This means more to me than just about anything," Perkins says one recent day as she looks at the fifth-grade artwork displayed in a hallway. "The kids have backbone, and there is a window when it can be cultivated. When the window is gone, it's over. We will lose these kids."

How they break out

One theory on poverty says there are four reasons people get out - it's too painful to stay; they have a vision or a goal; a special talent or skill offers them a way out; or they develop a "key" relationship with a relative, teacher, mentor or role model.

Adults like Perkins caring enough to show up can make a difference, says Ann Huff Stevens, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California-Davis.

No, a visiting scientist cannot wipe out the effects of chaotic home life. New research shows high levels of chronic stress through the early years can cause changes in the brain and nervous system that forever damage kids' ability to focus and learn.

Still, sustained contact with successful adults can show kids paths to a better life.

"I have never talked to a successful adult who escaped from the underclass who didn't say there was some caring role model person in his or her life," says Tucson resident Virginia J. Capeller, a retired social worker and professor who worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty program during the 1960s. "We never know how important we may be to someone."

rundown area of town

Perkins had no reason to get involved at Wright, really. She has no children - but does have a demanding, high-profile career. She is chair of the business advisory board at the UA's Bio5 and frequently travels to Brussels as a consultant to the European Union.

Her commute to the University of Arizona takes her south along Columbus Avenue. One day about four years ago, she noticed tricycles and children's toys outside a rundown trailer. She wondered about the kids living there, so she took a quick drive through the neighborhood.

She saw old apartments, broken and boarded-up windows, stray animals and graffiti. She also saw a school - John B. Wright - and approached officials to ask what they needed.

Once they got to know Perkins, administrators welcomed the help enhancing a special focus on science and technology that they had already begun.

Since then, Perkins has raised $82,000 for the school. Many of the scientists she's brought to visit now donate tax credits to Wright.

Children know her

A Philadelphia native and former New Yorker, Perkins has a can-do attitude about the children and is upbeat and positive as she walks the halls at Wright.

The kids all know her. She's the woman who gave them T-shirts that say "Future Arizona Biologist" and "Future Arizona Scientist."

She's the one who collected donations to turn a square of dry dirt in the courtyard into a green space with gardens. The brown dirt patch now has color, fragrance, vegetable crops and plants that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. With more donated money, she bought 25 iPads for students to use at school.

She's the mentor who leads science experiments, has accompanied students on a field trip to the Biosphere2 and gets top scientists to visit the school.

Since the science program began, Wright's performance grade went from a C to a B. Though it serves the third-poorest elementary school neighborhood in Tucson Unified School District, it out-performs more than half of the district's elementary schools.

The area around Wright is highly transient. More than one-third of the students who are at Wright on the first day of school leave during the school year. Just as many transfer into the school after the first day, creating constant classroom disruptions.

On the last day of school in May, Principal Maria Marin hears the same discouraging answer over and over as she says goodbye to students and asks whether she'll see them back in August.

Time and time again, their answer is the same: "I don't know."

"We might move," their parents echo.

Several kids live with grandparents or in foster care. One family spent three months with no electricity or water in their home. Other parents are using drugs. Many children live in homes with no books or computers. One boy asked Perkins how he could get paper and a pen to use at home.

Wright teachers do home visits as part of their job, and the school regularly holds parenting classes. Teachers have observed students who shuttle between relatives. They meet refugee families starting from scratch, struggling with language differences and trying to pay bills on low-wage jobs.

Living conditions vary, but too many Wright kids sleep on floors without mattresses, and keep their clothes in plastic bags. One boy's mother moved to another state to be with her boyfriend and left him behind with his father, who has seven other children. This past school year was the boy's first at Wright, and he told Marin it will also be his last. The boy, who has dark, curly hair and a ready smile, is used to change. Though he's only just finished third grade, he's attended six schools.

bustling intersection

In a city of drivers, the intersection of East Grant Road and North Alvernon Way is always filled with people walking to strip malls on each corner.

The businesses reflect the neighborhood's needs - Rent-a-Center, a cash-checking business, a pawn shop, a title loan company, a laundromat, a secondhand clothing store, a Walmart Neighborhood Market.

For many Wright students, this is the only world they see. When Perkins arranged for buses to take students and their families to a UA basketball game, it was the first time many of the kids had ever seen the university.

"I can see by the way the kids respond that it means a lot to them," says Dr. John G. Hildebrand, a regents professor of neuroscience at UA who has been to Wright several times. "The notion of engaging people from the community, such as faculty at the university, I think is a good way of compensating for what isn't possible anymore with school budgets."

Hildebrand quickly realized the neighborhood around Wright was troubled. But inside the school he has found a vibrant community, committed teachers and friendly, welcoming children. He's found students who are natural, instinctive scientists. But he's been disarmed by what many of the kids already know about - prison, drug addiction, foster care, domestic violence.

"They need a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic," he says. "They are exposed to a lot of really bad things."

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has spent time in the area near Wright and talked to some of the families.

"I don't want to hyperbolize. But you know, it's like a scene out of Appalachia at the corner of Columbus and Grant," Rothschild says. "The dad might be working as a dishwasher at Village Inn, but he's been able to hold that job for two months and then he's out of work. The mom might be able to pick up day work from time to time.

"And there are these little kids. All they are is little kids. Give them the right opportunity. Give them the right exposure, and you change who they are."

stable environment

The science program at Wright would not exist without the stable, caring environment the school's teachers and Principal Marin foster. Marin grew up with little money but had a mother who told her, "You are going to be your only obstacle."

Marin believed her - and still does.

"Let kids believe they can contribute to our society. Then the kids can take ownership of knowledge and possibilities," she says.

Marin offers students at least five field trips per year. She makes sure children who need glasses have them, and that they all get free dental care through a mobile clinic that comes to the school.

"There are a lot of resources out there," she says. "When you do ask people for help, they are pretty open."

If Marin could do anything to help prevent casualties from poverty and broken families, she says she'd add two classes to everyone's high school curriculum: parenting and financial literacy. Perkins would keep kids in school longer - until dinnertime or after.

Many hardworking parents do their best to raise their children in a loving environment. But that's not the case with all the families.

Perkins helped one parent get a job within walking distance of her home. The woman showed up for one day but never went back.

She has encountered parents who don't bother to bring their children to special events at school. Many of the students recommended for summer school at Wright don't show up. Some parents who are taking drugs fear Child Protective Services so much they don't take sick children to get medical care. One family set their son's broken bone themselves rather than risk a visit to the hospital.

The saying, "Parents want what's best for their children" does not always hold true, even though parents are their children's biggest influence, Perkins says. It can be frustrating.

"I believe deeply in personal responsibility. It is, however, all about the children," she says. "If compassion is lost for children - poor children, that is - then what?"

kids show discipline

Neuroscientist Hildebrand believes the extra stimulation of the science program can make a difference.

"I think it means a lot to the kids," he says. "What surprised me the most is how disciplined these kids are. They are not horsing around. It speaks a lot about the school."

During the final week of school in May, students listen to Dr. Joseph Christiano, a neurosurgeon with the Carondelet Health Network, tell them about "brain exercises," like puzzles and artwork.

"Do you lose brain cells? Yup," he says, holding up a model of a brain. "You can lose them by not treating it very well."

The fourth-graders want to know why a brain gets amnesia, whether someone without a skull can live and what happens to the brain when it endures a concussion.

"A concussion is like dropping a computer on the floor," Christiano says, before directing wide-eyed students to stations where Carondelet neuro nurses show them an electroencephalogram, models of a spine and a brain.

Perkins, who helped school officials organize Christiano's visit, surveys the room as the excited children run from station to station. When asked about their plans, the students talk about becoming doctors, astronauts and engineers - all people who have visited their school.

In spite of the negative forces, Perkins can't help but believe the science program has the power to change lives.

"Kids are magical at that age," she says. "If they are told they will be scientists, they sign up."

Here's how you can help

Breaking the cycle of poverty means reaching one kid at a time. So today, the Arizona Daily Star launches an effort to recruit volunteers and raise money for Reading Seed, which tutors local kids reading below grade level. Find all the details on Page A7.

Did you know

Children in the Tucson Unified School District who qualify for free or reduced lunch: 71 percent.

To qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in the 2013-14 school year, families must earn 185 percent or less of the federal poverty level. That is $43,564 for a family of four.

"I have never talked to a successful adult who escaped from the underclass who didn't say there was some caring role model person in his or her life. We never know how important we may be to someone."

Virginia J. Capeller, a retired social worker and professor who worked for President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty program during the 1960s.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134.

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