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Economic Stresses Surface In The Classroom

Even the wealthiest local school districts must deal with the effects of unemployment and foreclosure on children.

The slumping economy has had an under-publicized effect on children, who bring the pain of their parents’ troubles to school in the form of stress, hunger, lack of money for basic activities or even homelessness.

Dealing with economically deprived students has been a regular duty of some suburban districts that have had lower-income demographics for decades. But now even more affluent school systems are having to cope with the negative effects today’s economy can have on youths.

The issue came to the forefront during a Sept. 26 visit Sen. Dick Durbin made to Golf School in Morton Grove while promoting the American Jobs Act. District 67 Supt. Jamie Reilly told Durbin that children are showing up at school increasingly stressed, requiring additional help in an era of cutbacks to key positions like guidance counselors.  

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“Kids are feeling distracted in class,” one teacher told Durbin,

Illinois’ senior senator was moved. “It’s something I’ve never thought of,” he said.

No school is unaffected

A survey of districts in Glenview and Northbrook showed these economic and psychological woes afflicting children are increasingly widespread.

“I don’t believe there is a school out there that has not seen an impact on  students’ functioning due to the current economic situation,” said Lara E. Cummings, assistant principal for student services at . “Students struggling with home/family situations bring their baggage to school.  It is very difficult to expect a student to focus on math or social studies when they know they are about to lose their home.”

Traditionally institutions of refuge and help, many schools in today’s economy are increasingly pinched as they must add handling their students’ problems on top of basic education.

“Schools are places where students feel secure and loved while they grow and develop,” said Dr. Alexandra Nicholson, superintendent of . The two-school district bridging Glenview and Northbrook recently after residents to raise property taxes by a 2-to-1 margin.

“As teachers are fired, class sizes increase and students will not be able to receive the attention and differentiated instruction they need,” Nicholson said. “This will make it even more difficult for the children.”

Hunger, cramped housing reported

Nicholson provided a list of anecdotes about her students’ deprivations that would have been nearly unthinkable in more prosperous times.

According to Nicholson, the school nurse hands out granola bars to an increasing number of students who say they have had no breakfast. Middle school Principal Erin Murphy recently purchased a pair of shoes for a student who said his parents could not afford to do so. Kids who don’t have the materials they need say they hope to have them when their parents are paid, and some parents have offered to pay for the expenses of their children’s friends who cannot afford to do so.

Worst of all, some families in District 31 are reportedly doubling up in one house or apartment, according to Nicholson. Children have reported feeling tired because they had to sleep on the floor in these cramped situations, and several families lived out of their cars before they could find permanent housing, she said.

At , the nurse’s office and teachers also provide granola bars to students in need. Eric Etherton, assistant principal for student services, said District 225’s food provider, Quest, absorbs 100 percent of the cost of free and reduced-cost lunch ($122,000 in fiscal year 2010-11) for needy students.

At the high school level, students are old enough to take on part-time jobs—and in this economy, those jobs can be even more important than ever, requiring flexibility on the school’s part.

“One student recently applied to have early release from school in order to get to his job earlier in the afternoon,” Etherton said. “He stated that he needed to work to make extra money for his family as they are struggling financially, and his monetary contributions are needed. He has been granted early release, and is a student who works hard, maintaining excellent attendance and grades.”

Enrollment in free lunch, food assistance rises 

Other area schools have not experienced problems as acute as those reported in District 31, but their students are still affected by the economy.

“They haven’t seen anything dramatic in our district,” said Brett Clark, spokesperson for Glenview District 34. But, he said, the district has seen an increase in the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and who participate in a Holiday Helper program run by the PTA, which provides families with food and gifts for the holidays.

Sara Loeb, spokesman for Northbrook , said her district’s social worker has not reported that students seem more stressed out than usual. However, applications for the free or reduced lunch program are up from 33 in 2009 to 40-45 now, out of a student body of 1,725.

“One of our principals said, if students experience stress at home, school is a kind of sanctuary for them,” Loeb said.

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