Pupils feel pinch of poverty
How poor is poor?
The federal government considers a family of three as poor this year if their income is $18,530 or less.
The income limits for the federal lunch program are higher than the poverty line: A family of three making $23,803 or less qualifies for free school lunch this year.
The free-lunch guidelines did not change from the previous year, but the income guidelines did increase in previous years.
In 2008-09, for example, a family of three qualified for free lunch with an annual income of $22,880 or less.
In 2007-08 that same a family qualified for free lunch with an income of $22,321 or less.
In Janesville public schools this year, nearly half the children receive free or reduced-price lunches. The majority of those get free lunch.
JANESVILLE He lives in the basement of his grandmother's house.
Grandma died last month.
The 18-year-old's mother is dead, too, and an aunt is selling things so she can pay rent on his grandmother's house.
The aunt bought him two months of groceries, but after that he's on his own, he said. He does his laundry at friends' houses.
His favorite part of life these days is Parker High School. His face lights up when he talks about it. School is where he gets to be with his friends.
The young man is one of four Parker High School students who recently talked to a Gazette reporter about their lives in poverty.
The four agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their names not be used.
They are among an increasing number of children living near or below the poverty line in Janesville. The Janesville School District reports nearly half of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch under federal income guidelines this year.
The number of low-income students has been creeping up for years with no sign of a leveling off, echoing a national trend.
Parker teacher Deri Wahlert, who organized the Parker Closet to supply poor kids with necessities, said the stress about money at home affects what happens at school.
"They worry so much about whether or not their family will lose the house or where food will come from since food stamps don't last the entire month," Wahlert said. "Kids don't want to upset their parents … so they bring the stress to school.
"I've noticed more students with anxiety, depressed, crying at school," Wahlert said.
Teachers spend class-preparation time talking to upset students, "and if time is short and/or students need more counseling, the guidance counselors or social workers take over," Wahlert wrote in an email.
Teachers at elementary and middle schools can tell similar stories.
Social workers and counselors—whose shoulders kids can cry on, and who work to connect families with social services, among many other tasks—are among those whose jobs are on the chopping block. The district is planning layoffs to deal with a projected budget shortfall next school year.
"I have never seen the guidance office as busy as it is this year," Wahlert said. "There is always a constant stream of students in that office."
The four Parker students who agreed to speak with the Gazette didn't arrive at the interview with a list of complaints, but in the course of an hour-long conversation, it was clear that their lives are a struggle.
One girl said she lives in a nice house, but about eight years ago the family's finances went sour.
"My parents fight a lot," she said, mostly about money.
The four students interviewed are on track to graduate, Wahlert said, but most impoverished students struggle with grades.
"Usually it's a one-parent household with a few kids, so when the adult is working, a lot of the older kids have to take care of their younger siblings," Wahlert said. "This obviously puts a dent into homework time. There is also a lack of support for grades from some parents, mainly because of time and availability to their children."
A second girl interviewed said her family is on the verge of eviction, as her mother, a certified nursing assistant, hasn't had a job for some time, and unemployment compensation is running out.
But things have been worse, the girl said. She remembers crying herself to sleep every night while in fourth grade. That's when she and her two brothers and her mother shared one bedroom in a three-bedroom home. Two other families lived in the other two bedrooms.
The girl has a job at a fast-food restaurant, but she's not getting enough hours and is looking for another job to help her family, she said.
Meanwhile, she worries when her old car will break down and about paying for gas so she can take her siblings to school in the morning and get to work in the afternoon.
"Some of these kids are the sole bread winners in their families and work nights, or many help work with family jobs late into the morning hours and lack sleep and food, let alone (having time to) completed homework," Wahlert said.
The third girl interviewed lost her home to Hurricane Katrina. The family had relatives in Beloit, so they moved here. Her mother just lost her job. The family income consists of a disability check.
Her mother had worked at a gas station, "so we weren't really living the lavish life," the girl said, her voice tinged with sarcastic humor.
Food runs out at the end of every month for her, her two siblings and a cousin who lives with them, the girl said. They are hungry for a couple days until the new check arrives.
"My mom tries as hard as she can," said the girl, who also is trying to find a job, with no success.
Her father has been gone for years and doesn't send child-support payments, she said.
The girl said she's more motivated and her grades have shot up since her mother lost her job.
"I want to go to college because I really don't want to live like this no more," the girl said.
But the girl may be the exception. Wahlert said she sees many students who find it hard to get motivated while they deal with the stress of poverty, and this year is the worst it's been.
"More students are struggling, and more students are not on top of their grades," Wahlert said. "Sometimes the topic I'm teaching seems so trivial to the issues I know my students are facing."
All four of the students have their eyes on their futures. One girl got scholarships to Lakeland College but still needs several thousand dollars so she can attend.
And the boy who is on his own said he hopes to attend UW-Rock County. Or, he might join the Marines.