District adjusts to new needs as poverty rises
“This is not a happy story,” Kathie Koebler said gravely, holding up a copy of “Farewell to Shady Glade.”
The Madison Elementary School students tried to guess why the story was sad.
“Maybe somebody died.”
“Maybe somebody lost their family.”
“Maybe somebody got shot.”
Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be.
At the beginning of the year, Koebler would have struggled to read any story to her class, she said. Many of her students had never been read to before. Parents are too busy making ends meet to take their children in their laps and read books.
The children think stories have to be videos with flashy graphics and lots of songs. The only fairy tales they know come from Disney movies.
“I think out of 19 kids, I had just a couple of kids who knew nursery rhymes this year,” Koebler said. “No one has read them ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff,’ ‘The Three Little Bears.’ We had kindergarteners who had never heard of ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears.’”
Increasing poverty has caused changes in Koebler’s class and throughout the Janesville School District in the last 10 years. The district has seen its number of low-income students—defined as those receiving free or reduced lunch—grow from 15 percent in 1996-97 to 31 percent in 2006-07.
Teachers and other staff now have to spend time making sure their students have the basic necessities—food, hygiene, clothing, shelter—in addition to teaching ABCs and 1-2-3s.
The staff at Madison faces special challenges because the school draws students from all income levels. More than 40 percent are low income, but Madison also has students from new, high-income homes on the western outskirts of the city.
“Kids from poverty can be sitting next to the new anesthesiologist’s kid,” Koebler said. “We have doctors’ kids and lawyers’ kids, and, rightly so, those families are expecting us to take care of their kids, too.”
Koebler can often tell which students come from poverty by their language and behavior, she said. The kindergarten teachers now have to teach students how to serve themselves lunch, take turns and walk in a line down the hall.
“We used to start right out with the ABCs on the second day of school,” she said. “Forget it. The whole month of September is nursery rhymes, classic stories, teaching behaviors and routines.”
Some of the students don’t realize they can solve problems without fighting, Koebler said. Parents tell their children it’s OK to hit to survive in the “fight or flight” world of poverty.
“Our kids have seen ‘Chucky,’ ‘Scream’ and they know every WWF wrestler,” she said. “They know Jerry Springer; they watch soap operas. And then we say, ‘Use your words to solve your problems.’ Are you kidding?”
The children are open about their home lives, whether it’s dad going to jail, mom getting a new boyfriend or the whole family moving to a new apartment overnight to avoid eviction, Koebler said.
But as the students get older, they start to feel ashamed of their poverty, said Jessica Grandt, social worker at Wilson Elementary School. Some act out or withdraw from their classmates. Others spend too much time worrying about their home lives or caring for younger siblings to attend to schoolwork.
Grandt knew of one girl who came to the nurse’s office with a stomachache. It turned out she’d worried herself sick because there was no food in the house and she didn’t know what the family would do for dinner.
“The families that live in poverty are under a huge amount of stress,” Grandt said. “The children definitely pick up on that even if the parents are trying to hide it. The children know what’s going on, and then they come to schools worried about that kind of thing.”
Many bright students don’t consider college and even think about dropping out of high school to help support the family, said Marge Hallenbeck, district coordinator of student services.
“Necessities rise to the top,” she said. “If you don’t know where you’re sleeping, you don’t know what you’re going to eat, it’s hard to keep going and just do well.”
The district needs to do a better job letting those students know that higher education—whether a four-year college, two-year technical school or skills training—is an option, Hallenbeck said.
The first step in that path is getting children and their parents to view school as a positive thing, Koebler said. Many parents in poverty had bad experiences with school and pass those impressions on to their children.
“It’s my job to get them to fall in love with school,” she said.
She hopes the district’s 4-year-old kindergarten program, set to begin this fall, will help accomplish that goal and teach disadvantaged kids the skills they need for school, she said.
Koebler doesn’t know that kindergarten closes the gap between the haves and the have-nots, but she marvels at the growth she sees in some students. She remembered one student last year who could barely talk when he arrived. His mom was very young, and he’d had two “dads.” Just holding a box of crayons opened a whole new world for him, she said.
This year, the boy is learning to read.
““We see incredible growth. In-cre-di-ble growth,” she said. “They are teachable. They are, oh my, bright kids. But they just need the school experiences. They need to roll the dice and count, and they need to put a pencil in their hands.”
And the public needs to know about them, she added.
“They’re in your city. They’re sitting next to your child. And you’re paying for it … You better care.”