It’s hard to understand another’s walk in life unless you’ve walked in their shoes.
On Jan. 4, the day before students arrived back at school, Mahomet-Seymour teachers, grades K-8, spent a few hours in a poverty simulation hosted by the Mahomet-Seymour School District.
K-5 teachers met at Lincoln Trail for the simulation, and educators of grades 6-8 met at Mahomet-Seymour Junior High. Mahomet-Seymour High School Educators will go through the simulation after the early out on January 24.
While Mahomet is known as an affluent community, Superintendent Lindsay Hall said she hoped the simulation would provide participants with a “greater knowledge and continued growth in the sensitivity, awareness and understanding of the challenges that students experience when living in poverty or close to it.”
The hour-long simulation, comprised of four 15-minute time periods — each represented a week’s time — was designed to help educators understand the home environments their low-income students may live in.
Staff was divided into two categories: playing the role of a member of a family, ranging from toddler to elderly or a representative of social services, a grocery store, church groups, a bank, a pawn shop or the local jail.
During the 15-minute time periods, each family group tried to live within their budget, carrying play money and transportation passes, while still going to work, taking children to daycare, applying for services, paying bills or buying groceries.
“Good luck” or “bad luck” cards were distributed throughout the simulation, representing a “break” that might help the family stay afloat a little longer or an unexpected bill. Some families also fell prey to a local criminal who robbed homes and establishments and sold drugs to families.
At the end of each 15-minute period, families gathered within their homes to plan for the following week while Facilitator Alcha Corban, who was provided by Missouri Community Action Network, played society’s voice by pointing out which children were hungry at the end of the month because their family did not feed them due to lack of resources, and which children were left at daycare because the family could not afford a transportation pass to pick the child up.
Within a few minutes, family members were back at work or waiting in line to get what they needed to make it through the week. Persons could only travel from station to station if they had a transportation pass, which represented public transportation or the cost of gas and maintenance on a vehicle.
In 2017, a family in poverty was defined as a family of four making less than $24,600 a year.
Champaign County has the third highest poverty rate in the state of Illinois. Jackson and Alexander Counties, located in southern Illinois are ranked first and second, respectively.
While Mahomet’s average median income per household is $97, 601, the median income per household within Champaign County is $46,495.
According to census.gov, the official national poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7 percent, down 0.8 percentage points from 13.5 percent in 2015. This is the second consecutive annual decline in the rate. Since 2014, the poverty rate has fallen 2.1 percentage points from 14.8 percent to 12.7 percent.
In 2016, there were 40.6 million people in poverty, 2.5 million fewer than in 2015 and 6.0 million fewer than in 2014.
The Mahomet-Seymour School District has the second lowest rate of low-income students in Champaign County, falling behind the St. Joseph School District.
Within the Mahomet-Seymour School District in 2017, 21-percent of the 3,069 students qualified as low-income students according to the Illinois Report Card.
Mahomet-Seymour hit its highest five-year average of students who qualify as low-income in 2015 when the percentage reached 25-percent.
According to illinoisreportcard.com:
|School District||Enrollment||Low-Income Percentage|
|Rantoul City School District 137||1,674||99%|
|Urbana SD 116||4331||71%|
|Thomasboro CCSD 130||191||69%|
|Rantoul Township High School District 193||790||63%|
|Champaign CUSD 4||1060||55%|
|Fisher CUSD 1||621||32%|
|Tolono CUSD 7||1678||30%|
|Mahomet-Seymour CUSD 3||3069||21%|
|Prairieview-Ogden CCSD 197||243||19%|
|St. Joseph CCSD 169||900||15%|
|St. Joseph CHSD 305||468||5%|
As the simulation ended, some educators reported a “vibration” in their chest from the stress of just trying to keep their family afloat.
“You’re exhausted,” Sangamon Elementary Support Services Aide Pam Hogue said, “It’s stressful because you’re going from point A to point B and you don’t get anywhere; you’re in line and it’s so stressful.”
Lincoln Trail Interventionist Dianne Bollman said that getting from week to week with enough for your family “basically encompasses all of your thoughts.”
“That’s your priority,” she said.
Bollman and Hogue played a 15-year old girl and a disabled grandmother in the “Knowles-Kaminski” family. At the end of the simulation, the group felt like the trials they experienced within the simulation took their kindness away.
“You start to be more edgy and fight for yourself,” Bollman said.
The “Knowles-Kaminski” family made it out of the simulation having provided food, paid a car loan, paid all of the utilities and the majority of their mortgage.
As they reflected on the experience, the teachers realized that if they had budgeted their time and money and realized the resources that were available to them at the beginning, they may have ended up in a different situation at the end of the simulation.
Corban said that families in poverty generally seek assistance in the same way families in the simulation did.
By rushing into the simulation with little explanation, participants were able to experience what those living in poverty may feel as they try to navigate government programs and paperwork, as they try to make decisions within a limited budget and as they try to juggle their responsibilities.
In order to make it through the simulation, educators were surprised at how much they had to communicate within their family unit.
While some educators who played young children reported that they could only think about what their family was going through at home while they were at school, other “children” said that they were thankful for being at school while their parent was arrested or while the family received an eviction notice.
Sangamon Elementary Reading Specialist Julie Henry, who played the mortgage lender, ended up giving some families leeway in paying their mortgage by accepting partial payments. She also had to evict some families from their home, but waited until the family was out before placing an eviction notice or evicting someone from their home.
“We didn’t want to look anybody in the eye,” she said.
Common pitfalls that hurt families were not asking for receipts to prove they paid their bill, not seeking out financial assistance early in the month so that the maximum amount was available and not setting up a payment plan with the utilities to ensure the power and water stayed connected.
Corban, who works with low-income families, said these are common mistakes people in poverty make because they don’t know about the resources available to them.
Not all families ended the simulation by reporting that they had lost everything.
A single father with three children, one of which was old enough to go to college but stayed home to help his parent, reported that the family made it through the simulation with enough and was a little ahead of the game as the simulation ended.
Other families said that they were proud of the fact that a family member was offered an opportunity to distribute or sell drugs, and they chose not to.
Middletown Elementary Kindergarten Teacher Karen Badger said that her heart has always gone out to children who come from families that struggle financially, but she had never really felt sympathy for the parents. She reported that the simulation helped her to reframe how she looks at the parents.
Corban told a story of a father, who lives north of Bloomington-Normal.
The father was a mechanical engineer in Africa, but moved to the United States so that his children could have more opportunities.
But his degree and experience did not transfer into a job in his field within the United States, so he is working three jobs to support his children. He leaves with them as they go to school each morning, then picks them up from their grandmother’s house at 11 p.m.
“Anyone else who wouldn’t take the time to know his story might say that he’s lazy or that he doesn’t care about his kids” Corban said.
Hogue said that the simulation will help her reframe how she looks at students who may have other things on their mind.
“I think in those moments when you have a child who comes to school hungry or does not have the things at home provided that should be, you know, homework is not a priority, she said. “So having empathy for students who may be worried about what’s happening in their family or where’s dad.”
Bollman and Hogue agreed that there is “a line between giving them too much slack and not having that expectation for them.”
“Where do you draw that line?,” Bollman asked. “That’s where you have to balance that.”
At the conclusion of the simulation, Corban encouraged teachers to remember what they learned about living in poverty during the simulation.
She said that it’s not that parents in poverty do not care about their children, but sometimes they have to make choices between going to work or reading to their child. She encouraged the teachers to be empathetic when a permission slip isn’t turned in on time or an assignment isn’t completed.
In the fall of 2017, educators within the Mahomet-Seymour School District were required to watch the movie “Paper Tigers”, a 2015 documentary which follows a year in the life of six students who attend Lincoln High School in Walla, WA. Students at Lincoln High School have a history of truancy, behavioral problems and substance abuse, but the movie shows how the principal creates a safe place for the students to learn.
The staff was also required to read “Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom” by Kristin Sowers with Pete Hall. Based on research and the author’s experience, the book helps educators understand how trauma hinders motivation and success of students, how to create a safe space and how to develop a strengths-based approach to help recalibrate how educators view destructive student behavior.
Although M-S educators appreciated both opportunities that have provided them with insight, some hope the district follows up with professional discussion and development.
Teachers also said that they have felt very supported by social workers within each school.
Lincoln Trail Social Worker Cynthia Johnson said that as she becomes aware of a need or a resource, she will reach out to parents to offer assistance.
Some students, whose families accept the help, receive non-perishable food items discreetly in their backpacks through the privately- funded Give Me 5 Program.
“I feel like the social workers in our community do a really good job,” Hogue said. “It’s a huge resource for our district.”
Instructional Technology Coordinator Chris Forman and Director of Instruction Dr. Nicole Rummel were trained as poverty simulation facilitators in the fall of 2017. Rummel and Forman facilitated the simulation at MSJHS and will run the simulation at MSHS.
The poverty simulation kit cost the district $2,150.
Hall said the “purpose of this simulation is that it is a learning experience for our entire staff and a way to create/increase awareness about the many challenges our families and students experience if they are economically challenged and/or living in poverty.”
“Moving forward, the goal/outcome for any of our professional development activities is to apply what’s been learned and better serve all of our students. At this time, this is the only event planned, that could change in the future based upon the needs and changing demographics of our students.”