The link between lead poisoning and underperforming students | Feature | Chicago Reader

The link between lead poisoning and underperforming students 

With mounting evidence that lead poisoning results in lower test scores, more children repeating grades, and worse, why has so little been done in Chicago to reverse the damage?

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Dr. Cortland Lohff, director of Chicago's lead-poisoning-prevention program, says the department was forced to eliminate some inspector positions and use those funds to support other nursing and administrative positions. He says a new, smaller grant from the Cook County Department of Public Health will help rehab 300 homes over the next three years and remove lead hazards.

So what does the city spend the rest of the grant money on? It's not entirely clear. Although the 2012 city budget details what the department intends to spend in specific categories—inspectors, testing, epidemiologists, even office supplies—CDPH was unable to provide detailed numbers for previous years. Efrat Stein, a former department spokesperson, said those records were "not readily available," and was unaware if the program spent every dollar collected on lead abatement. Quenjana Adams, the department's current spokesperson, did not provide further information.

Lohff points to the department's successes, saying the number of children found to have suffered lead poisoning has vastly decreased over the last decade. But the city mainly focuses on children with higher levels of lead: ten and above.

"The numbers of kids who have been lead poisoned have certainly come down, but when we start recognizing the dangers to kids at lower levels, those numbers are way up there still," says Weinberg.

"All of my kids are different, but he was so different. It took a lot of one-on-one time." —Kindergarten teacher Dorothea Lane

By law, a building owner has to safely get rid of a lead hazard once it's identified, but Weinberg says this doesn't always happen. When a hazard isn't taken care of, the city pursues the property owner, filing a case with administrative hearings and escalating it to housing court if the hazard isn't taken care of. The entire process takes months, sometimes years. This year alone, the city has filed 114 cases in housing court over lead hazards that still haven't been abated.

In many households with toxic lead levels, families are often struggling to keep the lights on or put food on the table, says Judy Frydland, a city attorney who supervises lead cases in housing court. Frydland says her attorneys make sure lead hazards are cleaned up. She also says that, compared to the homeowners' other struggles, the threat of lead can seem distant and vague.

"I remember handling cases saying to people, 'You are hurting your own child,'" Frydland says. "But the population you're dealing with has so many other problems."

Nicholson Elementary kindergarten teacher Dorethea Lane first became aware of lead poisoning when a five-year-old boy named Michael ended up in her class. She had 32 kids in her classroom that year and the extra attention and help Michael needed was daunting. Lead poisoning had delayed his speech, he couldn't focus, and he didn't work well with the other children.

"All of my kids are different, but he was so different," Lane says. "The other kids were affected by his behavior. It took a lot of one-on-one time."

She could see that Michael was bright, but he couldn't communicate or finish a task. When she noticed that he could calm down if he had something to do with his hands, she brought in Legos for him to build with. He loved learning about the solar system and astronauts, so she would find books, pictures, and computer games about space to help him.

Lane says no one—not teachers, principals, social workers, nor counselors—considers lead poisoning when trying to figure out what's preventing a "low-performing" child from learning. She says lead poisoning has never been a part of her teacher training or professional development with the Chicago Public Schools.

"We as educators should know more about it," she says

Michael's progress has pushed Lane to learn more about how lead could be affecting her students. Ten years later, Michael has a larger vocabulary and no longer needs speech therapy. He still struggles with reading comprehension, but he excels in math. His attention span is getting better.

Lane says that if teachers knew more about what lead does to the brain and how it was affecting kids in their classrooms, more could be done to help them. But there's currently no coordinated effort between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Department of Public Health to inform teachers or parents about the dangers of lead poisoning.

CPS spokesperson Robyn Ziegler says the school system tries to encourage students to get tested for lead poisoning, as required by law, before they start school, and works to connect students who have lead poisoning to medical help and special education.

But according to city data, less than half of Chicago's kids have been tested for lead. In some neighborhoods, the testing rate is as low as 13 percent.

Ziegler says CPS works with supporting organizations to address the issue of lead poisoning, but did not give names of any specific organizations or programs the district is involved in.

Officials at CPS received Evens's study, but had no official response. Ziegler notes that the district's leadership has changed since the study was released.

Patricia Robinson, Michael's mother, believes that officials don't care because the kids who are affected live in neighborhoods like Englewood, not where their own children live and go to school.

"If it's not in your family, if it's not in your area, why should you care about it?" she says. "It's not a concern for you."

She blames herself, too, for what she wishes she'd noticed a decade ago, when her little boy sat playing in the windowsill.

"Why didn't I know?" she says. "I should have known—but word don't get out, so you don't know."

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