Last week Highland’s Assistant School Superintendent Sarah Dudley-Lemek gave a presentation to the school board entitled “Poor, Rich Experiences” that focused on the growing number of families in the district who are living at or below the national poverty level. For a family of four the national figure is $24,000 per year.
Dudley-Lemek began by showing several You Tube videos on child poverty that used the voices of children from various areas of the country whose families are classified as poor or are homeless. Each testified to the difficulties they face every day just trying to survive. One said “Its kind of chaotic and it doesn’t make you feel secure about anything” while another said “We’re struggling a lot because my mother’s disabled and she can’t get a job to pay for the bills and food.” One young female recalled losing a lot of weight, “I went from a size 5 to zero.” One student sang a song of hope by Sam Cooke; “It’s been a long time coming’ but I know a change is gonna come.”
Dudley-Lemek said the students comments show that poverty has many faces.
“Every individual student has an individual situation that they’re going through and I wanted to ground the presentation in that,” she said.
A chart showed the percentages of economically disadvantaged students in Ulster County schools, with Highland the third lowest at 42 percent, New Paltz 25 percent, Wallkill 36 percent, Kingston 60 percent and Ellenville the highest at 70 percent.
Dudley-Lemek said the overall poverty rate for students in the country stands at about 50 percent.
“We’re actually at a point where more students are living in poverty than not and those are the students that are in our schools and we have to think about how to address the needs of those students,” she said.
Dudley-Lemek said a review of the past five years confirms that the numbers of the economically disadvantaged in Highland is growing; from 35 percent in 2011 to 38 percent in 2013 and today at 41 percent, which translates to 4 out of 10 students in poverty.
“Though we’re not at the 70 percent rate, it is very concerning. It’s something we need to be very aware of,” she said.
Dudley-Lemek said a recent study published by the American Medical Association found that the brains of children growing up in poverty may be negatively impacted for the rest of their lives, “specifically in the frontal lobe that governs executive functioning such as playing, organizing, paying attention and remembering details and the temporal lobe where the ability to understand and use language is centered. Both of these areas were underdeveloped in the poorer kids they examined.”
Additionally, it has been found that the brains of children living in poverty have less volume of gray matter, which processes information, again in the areas outlined in the AMA study and also in the hippocampus, the part of the brain tied to learning.
Dudley-Lemek said her presentation is “just the start of the conversation” on poverty; the overall situation should not be looked upon as hopeless because it can be solved by taking small but important first steps.
“Providing rich experiences for students like music education, broadens their awareness of the world around them, heightens their literacy, heightens their vocabulary and their ability to do work,” she said. “I believe as a community we’ve done a very good job at creating safe and caring environments in our schools. Our real next step, and we’re doing this to some extent already, is providing that literacy rich environment of exposing them to the world outside of Highland and outside of New York and whether that’s by physically going outside of Highland or New York or the United States or by bringing that outside world in, one of the areas that technology helps us so much.” She said the ever expanding reaches of technology will continue to play a critical role in the lives of the students in the district.
On September 6 the district created a “Poverty Simulation” to provide a “real-world” experience to show what families in poverty have to deal with on a daily basis. Teachers were assigned to a “family” and were provided packets containing a specific amount of money to buy food and to pay the bills for a month. The simulation also had 15 administrators act as agencies that families have to interact with; the utility company, the schools, the police department, the mortgage company, a bank, a grocery store and social services. A transportation pass forced the participants to carefully work out how and when they were to get from place to place. The simulation also provided for a spring break that made the families think about how they would care for the children.
A concluding debriefing session was held to see what was learned and felt by the participants.
“It was very interesting to listen to the responses because people were very surprised at how immediate it felt for them to pay the bills and do what they needed to do,” Dudley-Lemek said. “I heard people say I was surprised that I would consider engaging in illegal activity when it was a choice between feeding my family and paying the bills and not.”
Dudley-Lemek said the simulation showed that choices for the middle class versus the lower class “are not quite at the same level of choice for a lot of people.”
Dudley-Lemek referred back to the study on a brains diminished gray matter.
“It does not mean that you don’t expect as much from students, it just means that you think about how your going to support them,” she said.
Dudley-Lemek said it is not necessary to know which students are living in poverty [but] “In my opinion, it’s what we can do for everyone so that everyone feels included and feels like they can do well and can be successful.”
Dudley-Lemek said the next step is that all teachers and teaching assistants will be reading Eric Jensen’s “Poor Students, Rich Teaching, Mindsets for Change.” She said this book creates a “common understanding and strategy for supporting our most vulnerable students at the classroom level.”
Board member Sue Gilmore commented that by her calculation 700 students out of a total of 1,750 students in Highland are living in poverty. She said other area school districts are also reporting losses in student population.
“It says to me that this area is becoming un-affordable to make a living. It’s so unfortunate that we are such a rich country, the stock market is going crazy, the billionaires are getting richer, but it’s really falling on those folks who don’t have an opportunity for that piece of the pie. Its so disturbing.”
By Mark Reynolds