Poverty simulation provides eye-opening experience for educators

A man who is disabled raises his grandchild while his wife works; a youth sits in jail for an alleged crime for which he proclaims his innocence; a diabetic faces her second week without food and health care. These are all roles Mahomet-Seymour educators experienced during an hour-long poverty simulation.

Last Thursday, nearly 200 Lincoln Trail Elementary School and M-S Junior High School staff members experienced four 15-minute segments (each equated to one week of a real-life scenario) in a districtwide effort to assist students who may be in similar situations.

"That's what we've centered our professional development around," director of instruction Nicole Rummel said. "We have two goals as a district. First, we want our staff to have a better awareness of the students' lives outside of school, and second, we want our staff to share in these (professional development) experiences."

Provided by the Missouri Association for Community Action, educators experienced one of two real-life scenarios. Teachers were either assigned a participant package with a list of character roles and scenarios or they were designated to be community agency personnel, such as social service workers, grocery workers, health care providers, payday loan employees, bankers, mortgage loan officers and utility collectors, among others.

"I'm a 20-year-old who has a 1-year-old child," fifth-grade support services aide Krickett Kelley said. "I'm going to college and working part-time. I am trying to find day care for my child. I am going to social services today to see if they can help me with day care."

Kelley's role was one of many various impoverished-simulated roles. Lincoln Trail Assistant Principal Courtney Porter said the goal of the simulation was to come out with a "trauma-sensitive mindset."

"Statistically, 13 out of 30 kids have experienced three or more traumatic events, such as parents getting divorced, an alcoholic parent and the list goes on and on," Porter said. "We're taking a look at what things we can do in addition to what we're already doing."

The simulation gave each family a limited amount of play money and a small budget to meet their basic needs. Participants were required to purchase and use transportation passes when visiting each community agency to help fulfill needs.

For community agency personnel, such as fourth-grade Lincoln Trail teacher Brooke Plotner's role as a social services agency facilitator, it proved to be a valuable experience for understanding how difficult and costly transportation is for many parents.

"It's eye-opening how people are coming here for help," Plotner said. "We have to collect their transportation pass. There's lots of waiting in line and they might have to come back. It's kind of a waste of a transportation pass if they have to come back."

District physical therapist Kathryn Rose, who played a health care agency facilitator during the simulation, also realized the burden transportation causes some parents.

"It (the simulation) makes me have a lot of empathy," Rose said. "We all come from warm houses, we drive ourselves to work and we don't think about what it takes for so many parents to pick up their child from school when they're sick."

Aside from transportation, Rose indicated health care was a large burden, yet also a low priority, for most families in the simulation. Out of the 20 clients on her list, only five people visited the health care clinic.

"I have a family with a diabetic who hasn't been fed in weeks and they've never visited the health care clinic," Rose said. "They're in line for food right now."

Rose said she understands why most people make health care a low priority when they are faced with paying bills and rent.

"I get it," she said.

The simulation made Rose all the more empathetic to real-life situations.

"Sometimes, we may ask why a parent isn't taking their child to the doctor," she said, "but they may not be able to afford the co-pay."

According to Rummel's "Poverty Facts" handout, which featured statistics from Data USA, Champaign County holds the state's third-highest poverty rating with 22.8 percent of the population living below the poverty line. The county rating is higher than the 14.7 percent national average.

With the appalling statistics, professional development that gears educators with a better understanding of poverty is important for the M-S district.

"I don't want anyone to think that just because they went through the simulation that they now understand what families in poverty are dealing with," Rummel said. "I would hope that it (the simulation) opens our eyes to be more empathetic toward these families and students. It's realizing that maybe things that may seem small, such as requesting $10 for a field trip, may really put a burden on families."

Lincoln Trail fifth-grade teacher Amy Roberts conveyed her feelings about the experience while playing her role as an incarcerated 13-year-old girl.

"I'm in jail because I took a gun to school," Roberts said. "When I was arrested at school, I had all of my family's money in my pocket. The school confiscated the money and now my family is having to get creative to get money. My family can't get me out of jail because they have a 3-year-old daughter to feed and provide for."

Roberts said she felt as though every door she turned to was closed. The simulation allowed Roberts to have a mere glimpse of the difficult scenarios some families endure on a daily basis.

"We're seeing firsthand some of the feelings families may experience," Roberts said. "It could be perceived by the public that these people aren't trying, but at every turn they encounter problems. We need to be compassionate if they (the students) lash out, because it could be that there is a lot more going on at home."

Fifth-grade Lincoln Trail teacher Ben Herriott echoed Roberts' response as he also played an incarcerated youth who proclaimed innocence for his alleged crime.

"My family is not in a rush to get me out because in here I have a place to stay and food to eat. I offered to work at the jail to help pay for my bail," Herriott said. "As for educators, we can't be that closed door. Children at school are at least fed and are safe. Our job is to provide a safe and welcoming place."

Event facilitator Alcha Corban from the University of Illinois Extension said this was her eighth time facilitating the simulation. After each 15-minute week, Corban would ask how many families fed their families, paid their bills, received community services or were evicted from their homes.

After the second week, one family forgot to pick up their child from day care.

"You should be ashamed," Corban said.

The family was required to use a transportation pass to pick up their child from the day care, and upon arrival, the family was informed that the day care was temporarily closing due to a lice outbreak.

"It's great to have the ability to help others better understand (poverty)," Corban said. "Poverty isn't just financial, there's social poverty and even situational poverty."

As a result of the simulation, Corban said many schools create action plans, such as creating food access for students.

For Rummel, who required her staff to watch the movie "Paper Tigers" and read the book "Fostering Resilient Learners" by Kristin Sowers with Pete Hall prior to the simulation for professional development purposes, said she hopes the simulation provides two outcomes to assist teachers in meeting student and parent needs.

First, she hopes the simulation showed teachers the importance of fostering relationships with children.

"It's our responsibility to find an adult to build a relationship with each student," Rummel said. "We talk about this in our morning meetings with staff."

Second, Rummel expects the simulation to redefine teachers' interpretations of parent involvement."Just because they (parents) don't come to conferences or parties doesn't equate to an uninvolved parent."

Sangamon Elementary School support services teacher Tina Brandon, who played the role of a supermarket employee during the simulation, reiterated the importance for the district to learn more about how it can help students who may face similar situations at home.

"As a school, we need to make systematic changes to help (kids)," Brandon said. "We're a part of a team, and we need to try to reach out and get support and resources for our students."

Rummel said high school staff members will go through the simulation on Jan. 24. The poverty simulation was an eye-opening experience for many teachers at the Lincoln Trail and junior high schools.

"Kids can come fully dressed and look like all the others, but we don't know who is and who isn't getting food at home," Rose said. "Poverty is everywhere."

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