Beaufort County teachers try to make ends meet in poverty simulation

rheaton@beaufortgazette.comFebruary 17, 2012 

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The goal is simple: make it through one month.

Pay for a mortgage and home repairs. Keep food on the table. Keep the utilities on. Keep your children in school. Make it to your job each day. Cope with unexpected expenses.

About 100 teachers from Whale Branch Elementary and Middle schools found that's not always easy during a poverty simulation Friday.

Matthew Hunt, principal at Whale Branch Middle, said he brought the simulation to his staff because he wanted them to face misconceptions about poverty head-on -- it's not as simple as just getting a job or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, he said.

Each teacher was assigned a character -- a 19-year-old woman with a live-in boyfriend and a 1-year-old son, for example, or a 36-year-old unemployed wife who must care for her disabled mother and teenage daughter.

In each week, which lasted 15 minutes, characters had to go to work, cash their checks, pay their bills, shop for groceries and more.

Sometimes, they were graced with good luck -- the husband received a raise at his $8.50-per-hour job.

But overwhelmingly, they were faced with bad luck and stress. The raise wasn't honored, and it wasn't until the end of the month that the family learned which social-service agency could fix that. Precious minutes flitted away while standing in line waiting for services. An error in a paycheck meant the bank wouldn't cash it, which meant $300 needed for rent was not there.

By the third simulated week, desperation set in. Teachers bolted to different booths -- the pawn shop, the bank, the grocery store -- to be the first in line. Some cut in line if they could get away with it. A few, though they weren't proud of it, tried to steal cash.

Denise Huntsman, a reading teacher at Whale Branch Middle, said the experience was exhausting. Huntsman said that at times -- when she waited in line at the social services office to receive food stamps and the office closed the second she was next in line -- she reacted angrily, which she didn't expect.

Whale Branch Middle counselor Rebecca Burkhart, who played a 15-year-old girl active in sports at school, said she felt neglected. No one was coming to her games. When she asked for $10 to buy a CD, she was told there was no money to spare.

At the end of the simulation, Hunt challenged the teachers to think about how the simulation could inform their teaching.

More than 90 percent of students at Whale Branch Elementary and Middle received free and reduced lunch, Hunt said. In some cases, the situations the teachers faced in the simulation are everyday occurrences for their students' families.

Other schools will participate in the simulation in the future, Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said. Materials used for the exercise were paid for with about $1,500 from Whale Branch Middle's Title I funds.

By most accounts, Hunt's goal of debunking misconceptions was met.

"This deepened my understanding," Whale Branch Elementary literacy teacher Brenda Housley said. "I knew on the surface what the kids were going through, but when there's anger in my classroom or a student is sleeping, I'll think 'Oh, there's a reason' now."

For Burkhart, the simulation made her rethink some of her expectations.

"Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated with parents. Like, why are you not helping them with their homework? Why are you not reading to them each night?" she said. "But maybe there's no time for those things."

But teachers also said that compassion for the struggles of poverty can't trump the expectations they set for their students. Education, Huntsman said, might be the only way out of poverty for some of these children. It's important they know someone cares for them, but the bar can't be lowered, she said.

"I want them to have more in the future," she said.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

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