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Sunday, November 09, 2008

When schools are the safety net

Unemployment figures out Friday confirm a grim trend: The national jobless rate grew to 6.5 percent, the highest it's been in 14 years.

The ripples of the economic collapse have spread quickly, and the downturn affects children in unique ways.

Schools are the first to see the growing hardships, and educators are looking for new ways to grapple with this growing problem.

Contributing writer Charlotte Huntley spent an afternoon at The Delavan-Darien School District's Turtle Creek Elementary School recently to see what teachers are doing to soften the blow.

Her story after the break:

School help as children suffer as economy struggles

By Charlotte Huntley/Contributor

DELAVAN -- While the current economy is making it difficult on adults struggling to keep their jobs and pay their bills, children increasingly are shouldering their share of the burden.

"It's really sad," said Principal Janet Green of the Delavan-Darien School District's Turtle Creek Elementary School. "You hope that it doesn't affect your kids, but it really does."

A year ago, 1,257 students received free or reduced meals, according to Green. Now, the number is 1,426.

In the entire Delavan-Darien School District, 58 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals.

"The free or reduced meals for 2007-'08 at this time was 50 percent for this building, and now they are 69 percent, up almost 20 percent," Green said. Meals include breakfasts and lunches.

In addition, some families cannot afford student fees or field trips.

Green has a fund for those students. For example, one class was scheduled to go to a pumpkin farm. Several students couldn't pay for their pumpkin, so money from the fund was used.

Although there have been some cutbacks in the number of field trips because of the cost of gas, Green explained that "I'm a big believer in letting the teachers make those decisions."

She shows them how much money is available for field trips and lets the teachers determine what is going to be the most meaningful use of those dollars.

Some businesses have programs to help schools with costs. For example, Green said that if you shop at Target and use their credit card, you can earmark a percentage of what you spend to be sent to your school. "Probably once or twice a year I get a little check, but all the little pieces add up," she said.

Turtle Creek Secretary Kim Jedlicka is in charge of supplies, which were collected and donated by Blackhawk Credit Union. Salvation Army vouchers also helped purchase supplies

This year, 19 students received help with supplies, compared to five last year.

"As new families come in, I put together things for them," Jedlicka said. Backpacks are always needed; by the middle of the year, they are breaking.

Sometimes families can only afford one set of clothes for their children.

Steve Deering is the interim school psychologist, and has gotten to know kids through his work.

"I kind of have a soft spot for the kids in need, and I know how kids can tease," he said.

When he discovered that some needed a helping hand, he said, "I put the good word into my wife."

His wife, Brianna Deering, is the children's ministry director at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lake Geneva, and has nurtured a variety of sources for children's clothing. "I had the kids and parents write sizes down on cards, so I knew what to ask for," she said.

Said Green, "(Steve Deering) has been really generous with some of our families," Green said, "to provide things that the kids need."

Nurse Jackie Belkin-Pecor and Health Aide Susan Lehmkuhl distribute clothes that Steve Deering brings in for emergency use; he also donates some of his own children's items.

Children from homeless families are difficult to identify Green said. A federal law, known as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, sets out the responsibilities that school have regarding such families.

"Truthfully, it's very hard to get families to admit that they are in that status. It breaks my heart," Green said. "If they tell you they are homeless, they qualify for free meals."

In addition, the school networks with the community to try to get the family what they need.

"Our guidance counselors work closely with those families," she said.

Green says school officials don't judge these families.

She sees the kids suffer, and knows it doesn't have to be that way.

"As a principal, that's probably what's changed the most - working with my staff, to get them to understand that in the life of a child who is homeless or dealing with poverty, homework is not the priority. It's really out of their control."

Counselors Anne Landis and Katie Kopp are alert to any child who might be homeless; meanwhile, they do what they can to help needy kids. They accept donations for clothes and make them available to the children. Landis said that sometimes people will donate, but want to remain anonymous.

Recently, a Delavan resident offered to "adopt" a family for the year.

"The hard part for me is," Landis said, "which family?"

And as always, with winter coming on, teachers quietly dig into their own pockets to buy mittens, shoes, scarves and hats for kids in their classrooms.


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