Poverty spreads out to suburban schools

In the past decade, the number of poor children has doubled in many of the Capital Region’s suburbs.
The youth group at Abounding Grace Christian Church packs bags of food for a backpack program to feed children in the Mohonasen and Guilderland school districts.
The youth group at Abounding Grace Christian Church packs bags of food for a backpack program to feed children in the Mohonasen and Guilderland school districts.

Some suburban schools are looking an awful lot like city schools now.

In the past decade, the number of poor children has doubled in many of the Capital Region’s suburbs. In Scotia-Glenville, only 13 percent of the children used to qualify for a free or reduced-cost lunch. Now, 25 percent qualify, and the number is growing in the Glenville portion of the district — which once was made up of wealthier families.

The district is hardly alone. Mohonasen has seen its poverty numbers jump from 18 percent of the student body to 34 percent.

Almost every suburb in the region has seen similar changes. Only Niskayuna has not seen poverty grow by double-digits.

It’s become such an issue that Mohonasen is offering special classes to help teachers respond to the unique challenges brought by poor children. Among the biggest: teaching a child who might only be in the classroom for a couple months.

“We do see a lot of transiency,” said Mohonasen Central School District Superintendent Kathleen Spring, “and we know what keeps kids in school is relationships, and it’s very hard to build those relationships [with transient students].”

Schalmont has also added classes on the topic, emphasizing differentiated instruction. District Superintendent Carol Pallas said the technique is useful in any classroom, regardless of poverty levels. Teachers determine how each child learns and teach the same lesson in different ways to reach everyone.

“It’s good because every child is different,” she said.

But, she added, the technique is particularly valuable when trying to quickly reach a child who might be struggling with repeated moves, emergencies or stress at home, and other crises. They’re also trying to get parents to get their children to school.

“We’ve seen a fairly significant increase in kids missing school,” she said.

Now they give out awards to students with good attendance, and send out tweets telling parents that students fall behind if they miss a certain number of days.

In Mohonasen, the transient nature of some poor children has led to questions of equality. Spring tries to balance each classroom, so one fourth-grade class has the same number of students as the next. But as students move out and others move in, it becomes a losing battle.

“It just becomes unequal by the end of the year. It’s very hard to plan,” she said.

The district is also cutting back on its school supply lists.

“It’s become more and more of a challenge for our students to have those supplies,” Spring said. “We’re making sure the things we ask for are really necessary.”

In addition to cutting out highlighters and other “luxuries,” Spring said, the district bought extra graphing calculators to loan out.

“That’s a huge expense for some of our families,” she said.

Students can borrow calculators during class and take them home to do work.

Other districts have added free breakfast after nurses and teachers reported children were hungry. At Mohonasen and Guilderland — which have also seen the number of children in poverty double — nurses are sending home backpacks of food each weekend.

The program, started by Gary Spadaro of the City Mission, grew out of the program many students rely on in Schenectady. In the city, they simply pick up a backpack of food on their way out of school, but it’s not that simple in the suburbs.

Spadaro said he didn’t want students to be seen accepting bags of food.

“We couldn’t do that. There’s a big discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots,” he said.

So nurses in each school accept the bags of food every Friday. Then, while students are in gym, art or music class, teachers and aides slip the food into the children’s backpacks.

The program came to Mohonasen after nurses reported seeing about 10 children run to breakfast on Monday morning, wolfing down extra portions of food, Spadaro said. He was stunned by the report.

“It was hard for me to fathom we were having these sorts of issues,” he said.

The program began by bringing food to just those 10 children. By the end of the year, 15 children were receiving food. Now, 90 children in Mohonasen and Guilderland bring home food every weekend.

Other poor families don’t need food as much as they need flexibility. In Scotia-Glenville, teachers set up phone conferences for single parents who can’t take time off work.

“They’ve actually worked with me, where they’ve done a phone conference on my break,” said Crystal Hall, who has a 12-year-old son in the district.

She also relies on the breakfast program to feed him, because she has to be at work at 6 a.m.

“It makes it a little bit easier” to get to work on time, she said.

But snow days throw a wrench into her plans. She watched the snow anxiously Tuesday, worried the district might close early. Then she would have to leave work early.

“If they canceled school now, I would lose hours,” she said. “It would make my day easier if they decided the night before.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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