A few years ago, I attended a talk by Donna Beegle about poverty. Donna grew up in a family of migrant workers, and worked her way through some incredible circumstances to eventually receive a Ph.D in communications, write a book, and now works as an advocate and consultant.
During her talk, I was first introduced to ACES, or Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey. The survey looks for different types of childhood experiences that are considered traumatic: anything from a divorced family to severe childhood abuse. The higher the score, the more adverse your experiences were. This is important research, because many of the symptoms of a child growing up in these circumstances mimic the symptoms of children with diagnoses such as ADD and ADHD, but the interventions recommended for these separate issues are clearly very different.
Donna asked the audience to take the quiz, and the audience of over 200 educators had an average score of 4. Donna then discussed with the mostly white, mostly middle class audience how our score affected our lives, and how our students lives are so very different. She discussed Ruby Payne’s work, and how when you grow up in poverty, you have to learn a whole other set of hidden rules in order to make it in a middle class world, and these rules are not communicated to you the way they are to a middle class child (for example: I was an adult in my 30s before I had ever heard the word ‘escrow’ before).
Dr. Beegle trains poverty advocates, individuals who partner with folks living in poverty, to teach them the hidden rules and help them navigate through the system. Things like how to get a library card, how to register to vote, where to go to get your license, how to apply for a loan, etc. These are all systems that are already in place for middle class families– their children are brought into these systems, and so explanations are often not required. But a child living in poverty learns an entirely different set of rules and systems, that do not translate into a middle class environment (for example: I know how to siphon gas, how to shower without running water, how to stay warm without heat, etc)
As we drove home from the conference, my colleagues and I discussed the talk. And of course, we compared scores. I had the unhappy renown of hitting the high score in the car with an 8 out of 10.
As we talked more, I was surprised, as I often am, at the many things about middle class living that my colleagues (whom I deeply respect and admire) took for granted. I made a commitment that day that I needed to start talking more about my childhood growing up in poverty, because I needed my colleagues to understand that stories like Dr. Beegle’s (stories like mine) are possible for everyone of our students. Too often as a kid I ran into well-meaning teachers who would (quite literally) tell me to settle for less because that’s as good as I would get– from the guidance counselor who would not help me with scholarship applications to the teacher who would not let me take an advanced placement history course my senior year– even though I had all the right pre-requisites, because she needed to reserve the seats for those that were ‘college-bound.’
I had just such an opportunity the other day in a finance committee meeting at Schoolcraft, as we were discussing our policy about food service balances. As every school in the nation does, we have some students who have a high lunch balance that goes unpaid. It is Schoolcraft’s policy to ALWAYS feed these children, regardless of their balance, and work out the balance with adults later.
This policy existed before I came onto the scene, and I just had to give them team props. I remembered back in my day (not so long ago!) when I had been asked to do janitorial work in exchange for school lunch. I would scrape the trays and wash tables for my middle class classmates, having to miss a little bit of class so that I could eat before they arrived, and coming back a little late so that I could finish cleaning up the cafeteria. This was my experience from about 2nd grade until 7th.
Once I went to junior high, it was the practice of the school just to simply not feed kids who couldn’t pay. I will never forget the hot shame I felt one day when I didn’t realize there was no money on my account and went through the line, and the cafeteria worker took my tray away from me and threw it in the trash. That was the only meal that I was going to eat that day, and there it was, wasted in a garbage bin.
51% of the students at Schoolcraft qualify for free and reduced lunch. This is higher than our state percentage of 38%. Many other families in our school do not hit the qualifying metric for this distinction, even though their families struggle.
It is a point of pride at Schoolcraft that our kitchen serves fresh, home cooked meals every day. Our chef is often seen peeling real potatoes, cracking real eggs, and serving real chicken (no ‘mystery meat Mondays’ at Schoolcraft). We do not give an option for chocolate milk. It is an important part of our culture that our scholars are being given the right tools that they need for learning, and we believe that this includes their physiological needs as well. I am proud to work in a place where there is no stigma attached to being one of the 51%, where kids are blissfully ignorant of the financial situation of their peers, and instead, we can all focus on working and learning together.