A Nostalgic Lens No More

Yesterday, I shared with everyone why I struggled so much the day after the election. Not because one candidate lost but because my students did not feel safe in the wake of a historic election. I also told you I’d tell you more about the community, families, and students I serve.

Twenty five years ago, the poverty rate in Clintonville, WI was extremely low. Home of the Four Wheel Drive, Clintonville sustained a thriving, working, middle class community.

During the intervening years, jobs were lost, development stopped, and the Clintonville so many people remembered had changed drastically.

Today, in the Clintonville Public School District, poverty rates hover near 50 percent and unemployment is high. At Clintonville Middle School, we report 52 percent free-and-reduced lunch, but the actual number is 60-66 percent. For a variety of reasons, not all of our families complete the necessary paperwork, but we know our demographics mirror that of the elementary school, and they report 66 percent free-and-reduced lunch eligibility.

Why are those numbers so important?

First, school report cards in Wisconsin have a multiplier based on poverty levels. Because not all of our parents fill out the paperwork, we report low, which lowers our overall report card grade.

Second, eligibility for many grants factors in free-and-reduced lunch rates. Clintonville already qualifies for many grants, but we would qualify for more grants, and in much higher amounts, if we reported actual free-and-reduced lunch rates.

Most importantly, though, if our parents complete the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork, our students who are hungry could eat.

Statistics Are People, Too

At my very first open house as an administrator in Clintonville, two parents approached Scott and I and openly wished us luck dealing with their son. At the end of the previous year, he had “destroyed” the principal’s office, and they just wanted to prepare us for the challenges ahead. During that first year, that student did challenge us, communicating loudly and in a way many staff members did not want to hear. Scott and I worked with the dad, but that young man had high absenteeism and struggled to succeed in school. Many times dad came to us for help with parenting, but he struggled to follow through.

At the end of the year. Despite the dad’s initial fear of working with the county due to some negative contacts for him, we convinced him to at least consider voluntarily “wraparound” services. Dad was not ready to commit, and last year began with more struggles for this student. He missed a lot of school and on the days he attended, he wanted to fight everyone, even me.

Many people who do not work in schools today, or have never worked in schools, cannot imagine students so angry and in distress that they would harm themselves or others while at school. One of my most vivid memories as an educator is of standing outside an empty classroom to ensure this student did not harm himself while simultaneously dodging the shards of glass he chose to throw at me after shattering a window. This child needed our help, and whether or not I appreciated the medium, he was communicating loud and clear.

Afterwards, the student missed more school, had increased negative law enforcement contacts, and struggled to find any success in classes. On the plus side, dad agreed to fill out the free-and-reduced lunch paperwork. They qualified, but our young man refused to get lunch.

Fast forward to this year. Over the summer, the student participated in long-overdue counseling and the family received much-needed, mandatory wraparound services.

I will never forget the first time I saw this child’s face this year. He smiled and laughed, and when we asked him to eat lunch…he did. This went smoothly until mid-October when last year’s paperwork expired and our cafeteria staff denied this student lunch. He spiraled out of control again, until Scott got the father to come in to fill out new forms. The father struggled to read the forms, and his pride caused him to write down more income than he had. Initially, they only qualified for reduced lunch costs. Scott called the dad in one more time, and after reporting actual income, they qualified for free lunch.

When uninformed, unknowing people demand that people in poverty submit to drug testing before receiving benefits, I always hear the line, “If I have to pee in a cup to get a job, why shouldn’t they?” I don’t know what the correct answer is to that dilemma, but I do know this: I’m sure that punishing adults can feel right “in the moment,” but since I’m in the kiddo business, I want to know how that consequence helps children in need. We need to remove barriers to success, not erect them.

The family I highlighted today is in a long-term cycle of distress. The child has experienced unimaginable, unspeakable trauma in his life. The father battles his own demons but tries so hard every day to do right by his son. When we choose sides. When we decide to denigrate one group of people. When we worry about what others have that we do not, we miss the bigger picture. Every day I see the difference eating breakfast and lunch makes for this child. He is healthy. He has grown for the first time in years, and most importantly, he looks as healthy as many of his peers. And that smile…

If all of our families who qualified for free and reduced lunch filled out the forms, our school report card would likely jump up an entire level to “Exceeds Expectations,” and we would potentially receive more grant money. While that looks good on a resume, it ignore the most important outcome: all of our students who go hungry could eat, which makes focus on school so much easier.

The other day, our student returned to school after an extended illness. I asked him if he was feeling better. He whispered, “Yes,” and he asked me if he could eat lunch again. I asked if he was hungry and he laughed loudly, yelling, “Oh my God, am I hungry.” It was music to my ears. It should be music to yours.