District 219’s two high schools are performing more social-services functions than ever before as the lingering poor economy has resulted in stress, hunger and even homelessness among many students, officials said.
“It’s a new challenge the schools are facing,” said Jason Ness, assistant principal of student services at Niles West.
“For a lot of kids, it’s a survival mode. ’You want me to do two hours of homework — I’ve got to work, I’ve got to support the family,’” students tell him.
He said children from financially strapped families are bearing the burden of income-related responsibilities for their parents.
“If their needs are not taken care of, they’re not available to learn. We educate them where to get support in local agencies,” the principal said.
District 67 Superintendent Jaime Reilly brought the issue to light as reports of students being stressed or distracted in the classroom was increasing. Reilly told Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during his visit to Golf School of the under-publicized problem. Durbin responded he had not even thought of the scope of the issue, despite campaigning for the American Jobs Act.
Several north suburban school districts told Patch the number of hungry students is growing and often stems from home financial problems.
Schools have been forced to assume a primary role of feeding two meals a day to the youths while helping their families connect with agencies that can help them.
Both Niles West and Niles North provide free breakfast and lunch to students who qualify based on financial needs. In both schools, 31 percent are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-cost lunches, said District 219 spokesman Jim Szczepaniak.
But in extreme cases, the schools — through the privately financed District 219 Education Foundation for Excellence — will supply emergency bags of foods, including macaroni and cheese and other non-perishable items, to tide families over until they link up with local food and financial assistance agencies, Szczepaniak said.
25 emergency food baskets in one week
In the week beginning Oct. 24, the Foundation for Excellence distributed 25 emergency food baskets at both high schools, said foundation vice-chair Alyse Burman. The foundation, which collected $40,000 last year through various fund-raisers, also bought $1,500 in granola bars for those urgent early-morning energy boosts.
“We don’t want to be a food pantry,” said Bridget Connolly, assistant principal for student services at Niles North. “But we give them enough before they can get help. We’ve supplied families with winter coats. We had one family with four kids. Their mom was not working. She was in dire straits. We connected her with (the Village of) Skokie and the Salvation Army. She was able to get the kids prepared for winter, getting them shoes, hats, coats, etc.”
Other area schools actually have emergency clothes stockpiles on site. Chelsey Maxwell, principal of Madison Elementary School in Skokie, said her building has a clothing closet. “Teachers help contribute to that as well as the community. We have a clothing drive,” Maxwell said.
Teachers and counselors are being more flexible than ever in dealing with students’ academic problems due to their stress of not having enough to eat at home or doubling up with two or three families in one residence. The workload is thus increased on Niles West’s and Niles North’s 10 guidance counselors, four psychologists and three social workers at each school.
“You definitely have to take the time to hear kids,” Connolly said. “The kids who are in the most need don’t share. You have to do relationship building. You have to poke and prod at kids to get information. You really do have to be cognizant and infiltrate in, and see how you can help them.”
Said Ness: “It’s a crisis on a daily basis. … Crisis takes a priority when it comes in. A lot of other things are pushed aside to work with these kids. Literally on a daily basis, we’re almost triaging here.
“There’s not been a conversation with a teacher in this building or district that has not been empathetic to what’s happening,” she added.
To learn more about the Education-Foundation for Excellence, click here.