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A Look at Poverty in Johnson County

SMSD: Poverty Rates Increase

The number of students who are struggling financially in the district is increasing at a rate that cannot be met by existing funds, according to Federal Programs Coordinator for the district, Alicia Dean.

In nine years, the number of students enrolled in the district’s free and reduced lunch program has increased from 17.25 percent to 37.84 percent this year. There are over 10,000 students district-wide that are near or below the poverty line, and last year alone 451 homeless students were identified and assisted in the district. With district funds to support these families limited, each year Dean is having to reach out to community resources more to meet the growing need for financial aid in the district.

Dean handles the federal and state financial aid programs that provide services to lower-income and homeless students in elementary and secondary education. Dean says that the rapid increase in lower-income families in the district knows no geographical boundaries, and is increasing in every school, regardless of what perceptions of the Johnson County area might be.

“The face of homelessness [and poverty] has changed,” Dean said. “It is no longer primarily the poorly-dressed individual panhandling at the intersection or under the bypass. The growing number of homeless look like your neighbors; they could be the family standing in front of you at the grocery checkout stand. Poverty in the suburbs is real.”

The federal government requires school districts to provide services such as busing, meals and clothing to homeless students, provided under the McKinney-Vento law in the state of Kansas. However, the government does not supply the actual funds that go towards waiving fees for those students. The funds must be set aside by the districts themselves, which Dean calls a “loss for the district,” as things like transportation can get costly to provide.

School districts in Kansas like the KCK district get a larger amount of federal money, because their poverty levels are higher, according to Dean. However, Johnson County’s rate of growth of poverty is increasing and surpassing other counties rates of growth, like Wyandotte’s. Because SMSD does not receive as much federal funding, Dean has to reach out to community resources for much of what struggling families need. sidebar

“The truth is, we don’t have enough funds to serve the students we encounter, sadly because the issue is growing,” Dean said. “When you reach out to the community for support you’re looking at the private sector. And often, we encounter the attitude of ‘what, there’s poverty in Johnson county, I don’t think so, you are kidding.’ So it takes educating [the county] to what’s really happening in our community.”

Dean connects the families with resources after the families are referred to her by an administrator or counselor in the building that knows they need assistance. If they need family counseling, Dean has a database of inexpensive metropolitan services for that need. Dean directs the families to places where they can go to get help with utilities, housing and even job search resources.

While Dean says the district is trying to make the most out of the funds they have, she says there are still certain things she is unable to provide, especially for the homeless students who may lack any kind of transportation.

“It would be nice if we had money to help students get to the special events that are provided for them at the school,” Dean said. “Or, if practice events or a sport occurs after school [we still need a way to] pick them up after practice or get them to and from their job. If we could get more help from the community that would be great…The law goes so far, but it doesn’t go far enough for providing funding.”

In addition to the stretched resources, Dean says that there is a stigma attached to being in poverty in the Johnson County area. She says that all too often families will know about the resources the district can provide if they need financial help, but families are hesitant in seeking it. For this, Dean wants to stress how important it is to educate the community about increasing poverty, even in the suburbs.

But for now, Dean thinks the district is doing all that it can with its funds. The district is working to develop collaborative relationships with community organizations, businesses and individuals to pool resources to provide a support system for students and families in need.

In his first year as Superintendent, Dr. Jim Hinson has already established the Shawnee Mission Cares Fund, a fund that helps with rent, utilities and medical needs of financially struggling students. These students can be referred to the program by a social worker or administrator.

The Summer Lunch Bunch program is being implemented for a second year, beginning this June. A hot lunch will be served for free to anyone ages 1-18, Monday through Friday, June 2 to July 25 at various SMSD schools.

“I believe the district is doing the best it can given the funding challenges,” Dean said. “We need to be creative and wise with how we work to reach the needs of students…If you have been watching what is happening in our state with funding and what is happening at the federal level with funding, I don’t know if we will acquire more funds. I think we need to be smarter with our money and improve our community collaboration.”

Social Effects of Poverty at East

*Name changed to protect identity

Near the end of the month in January, junior Dylan Abbott* wasn’t worrying about making plans for the WPA dance, or what his grade was on his math test. Instead, Abbott wondered if his third grade brother was going to have to sleep in a cold room on the 13 degree January night, or if his family would be evicted from their apartment in the coming weeks. As the end of the month approached and the time to pay the bills came near, his mom’s paycheck didn’t come at all.

Abbott’s mom, the single working parent for her three children was injured when an object fell on her at the custodial job she works at a local bank. With no income for an entire week, Abbott’s family lived in a state of uncertainty. They faced the reality that there was not enough money in their bank account to pay the bills that were piling up.

Abbott needed help. He had heard that there were ways school social worker Becky Wiseman and principal John McKinney could aid his family’s situation.

By the end of the week, Wiseman had set him up with district program SMSD Cares, and his rent was paid. The lights stayed on in the apartment, and his siblings didn’t have to sleep with their second-hand coats on. Everything was going to be okay.

*   *   *

Abbott is just one example of the increasing number of students at East who live near or below the poverty line. With this increase, Wiseman hopes that an awareness of the growing reality of poverty in the East area will increase among community members and students, so they can understand the social difficulties that come along with being lower-income in an area considered to be affluent.

“I think the kids that I have spoken to feel somewhat isolated at times,” Wiseman said. “I think they walk through the building and think no one else is experiencing financial issues when indeed, they truly are not alone in where they are. For example, during spring break when [these students] are surrounded by people doing fun things and going on these amazing trips, for them, there is no way that their family can afford that so they might feel isolated and alone.”

The population of East students in the federal free and reduced lunch program has gone from 3.56 percent of students enrolled in 2005, to 10.57 percent this school year. At the same time, there were 20 students who are unable to pay fees at the end of the year and were sent to collection agencies, a number that bookkeeper Joan Burnett says is much higher than in the past.

For families like Abbott’s, the school enrollment fees are an expense they can’t afford. Their family falls below the federal poverty line, and receives aid from food stamps for meals, and have completely waived lunch fees at school. They live a lifestyle that Abbott says students at other high schools seem to think does not occur at East. Abbott attends a work study program in the mornings at another SMSD high school, and classmates have said they think of East students as “snobby,” and “all being preps.”

Abbott says that while he sees some people who fit this stereotype, it is not true for everyone, and he does not feel pressured to appear a certain way at East. However, he sees his sister struggling at Indian Hills, trying to fit the “affluent” lifestyle that some students have.

“It’s different for me and my sister,” Abbott said. “I was the first one that went through this, and I have always kind of gone through it with my mom and I have always kind of known how to struggle. Struggling to me isn’t a big deal. But I know its different for my sister because she wants to fit in, and her wanting to fit in is expensive. But kids are cool with her; people are nice to her, and I am happy for that.”

Abbott says that his mom feels bad when she can’t “spoil” his sister. But Abbott’s mom and himself have worked for the money to purchase her Sperry’s, a Vera Bradley bag and an iPhone. Abbott does all that he can to help out his family, and provide them with more than just what they need, but sometimes what they want as well. To do this, he works often, mowing extra lawns to help pay for wifi, phone bills and rent.

“I look out for [my family] more than I do for myself,” Abbott said. “My thoughts are: ‘I have shirts, I have pants, I have shoes, so I’m good.’ But, I’ll ask my mom if she needs more pants or anything. I don’t want my mom to be too stressed out [about finances.] My brother hangs out more with me, and he gets my perspective and he understands that we are not a well-off family and sometimes we can’t get him stuff. If I can get him a toy, I’ll get it for him, but sometimes if he asks I’ll have to say, ‘I can’t right now,’ and he’ll just say ‘don’t worry about it, I understand.’”

As the number of students in similar circumstances as Abbott’s family grow, McKinney says he and Wiseman can no longer help students in the same ways they were able to six years ago. They can no longer purchase backpacks out of pocket for every student that needs one, or buy students lunch when they see they can’t afford to eat in the cafeteria.

Instead, McKinney feels that the needs of lower-income students are being met effectively through the Love Fund program. They started the Love Fund  in 2009 as the need for financial assistance to cover the costs of school supplies, program fees, book fees and certain activity fees grew among families at East.

Abbott says that many of his needs have been met through contributions from the Love Fund from his textbook fees to waiving the costs of his course fees in English and his work study program. Abbott feels he was given resources through East and the district that, back in January he did not think was possible.

“I feel like people are shy or embarrassed when they ask for help, because they feel like they will be looked down on by people who think ‘oh you can’t even do this for yourself.’,” Abbott said. “Some kids believe people are more judgmental here, but I don’t really feel that way. I am really grateful for [the Love Fund,] and it really helps a lot that they have the program here for students that need it, and there’s more kids that do [need it] than some people think.”

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Sophie Tulp

Junior Sophie Tulp is Assistant Editor and Business and Advertising Manager for The Harbinger. Tulp is also involved at East as a Varsity cheerleader. When she is not spending hours in the J-room, Tulp is a coffee enthusiast, recreational reader and professional speed walker. Read Full »

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