By Samantha VanHoef
The Meridian Times
If you ask Okemos High School guidance Counselor Beth Josephson how many students lost their house last year, she’ll have a guess. If you ask her how many students resort to stealing to feel like they’re keeping up with their peers, she’ll give you another guess. But if you ask Josephson who these students are, she couldn’t tell you — because she doesn’t know.
2014 data by U.S. News & World Report reports that 15 percent of Okemos High Students are considered economically disadvantaged. This means that of the 1,325 students currently enrolled at Okemos High School, almost 200 students fit in this category.
“Sometimes by the time I learn through conversation, which is mostly after they come in, that the student is struggling,” Josephson said. “There is a lot of pride that goes into families that come from poverty or low-income and they have learned to adapt their whole lives. Even when offered things quite honestly they may decline them because of that pride, which is a wonderful thing, but also doesn’t help help when we could be helpful.”
The number of economically disadvantaged students is calculated by adding the 13 percent of students eligible for the free lunch program and the 2 percent who qualify for reduced-price lunch program. According to Josephson, free and reduced lunch data is “helpful,” but is not the only way to identify struggling students because of its parameters.
“Yesterday I had a ninth grader come in and he was with his mom and I asked ‘Are you on free and reduced lunch?’ And he said ‘My mother changed her job and is making 40 more cents per hour, and so we don’t qualify,’” Josephson said. “So there are struggling families out there that don’t qualify, so you can’t judge it on just that. Certainly it is an indicator for schools, but you can also know by the community. You don’t need to know the free and reduced lunch numbers to know the community of Lansing will have more.”
According to Okemos Public Schools Superintendent Catherine Ash, this lack of information is not the choice of the administration, who must respect policy and the students’ privacy.
“We certainly want to assist families as much as possible with their personal circumstances,” Ash said. “There is a fine line between allowing a family to maintain their personal circumstances and seeking information as a district. While we could ask families within a survey, it would still require self disclosure, which some would opt not to do. I don’t know of a “better way” or we would certainly be implementing it. We have to respect the wishes of the family.”
Because of the privacy rules, students have the choice to ask about resources provided by the school, which according to Ash, could be given by any adult in an Okemos school building. Most commonly, students ask counselors and social workers rather than teachers or administrators.
“Students will come in their senior year or I’ll get to know them their eleventh or twelfth year and that’s when I can offer fee waivers for applications. I can provide waivers for the ACT and SAT,” Josephson said. “But do we reach all of the kids without making an appointment for them? Absolutely not. That’s a primary challenge. The kids don’t see the signs (of what we have to offer.) They’re going about their day and there are tons of signs for clubs and events too.”
Resources for disadvantaged students within the Okemos Public School district include reduced or waived fees, scholarship opportunities, backpack fill programs, community service projects like coat drives and food drives by other student groups, and fundraising money allocation for other high school experiences.
“I’ve spent time looking at what defines the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ of the students,” Josephson said. “One of the things I noticed was when we have Spirit Week at the beginning of the year, the kids collect T-shirts and purchase them,” Josephson said. “When we have the pep assembly, it’s very clear, like ‘Wow. There are kids who don’t have T-shirts on.’ Some kids don’t want the shirt, but there are kids, who if offered a free T-shirts because we know they’re low-income, they would definitely take them. So we said let’s try to be helpful to the kids that we know and offer it up. We want to make sure no one feels like they can’t do it because they feel like they need to buy a T-shirt.”
For students like Okemos High School senior Darby Hopper, the anonymity of low-income students isn’t the issue. Instead, according to Hopper, when students do encounter low-income students they just don’t understand.
“Okemos is a privileged district, both in terms of education and in socioeconomic status, and students definitely realize that,” Hopper said. “The problem is, they tend not to understand it fully.”
According to Josephson, the challenges of low-income students trying to keep up with their peers only creates more stress on the students.
“We gravitate toward people like us,” Josephson said. “And some low-income kids find solace in kids in similar situations as them. However, I definitely have students that are hanging out with students who have more money than them and they work to be able to pay to go out, or pay for the gas in their car. I had a student say ‘I want to go out, but I just don’t have the money.’”
Beyond keeping up with the status quo, disadvantaged students must also face other challenges. According to research by Princeton University, students who are considered below the poverty line are statistically more likely to have poorer attendance, lower test scores and are less likely to complete their education than those living above the line.
“In general, I believe all the risk factors are true, but it really does depend on the individual student,” Okemos High School guidance counselor Katie Alexander said. “I have three students currently that come from families who are financially struggling, and they are some of the most motivated individuals I’ve seen. They have to work much harder than most students do. One student babysits his three younger sibling while his mom is at work every day after afternoon. But they have this drive to create a better future for themselves.”
Okemos High School graduate Catherine Crites noticed some of the disadvantaged students during her senior year, but didn’t know what she could have done for them.
“I always knew there were a few kids who were really struggling, but I never felt like I could talk to them about it,” Crites said. “My friends and I just went on with our day and pretended not to notice when a kid in class wore the same shirt twice in one week. We probably could have done something for them, but we didn’t know what.”
Even in Okemos Public Schools district, which has a poverty rate considered low in the state of Michigan, the discretionary funds used to support the disadvantaged are extremely limited according to Josephson.
“Some years ago, I had a parent say to me — and I don’t know whether this is true or not because sometimes families will stretch their dollars for some things and not for others — say ‘Well, I don’t even have money for Pepto-Bismol.’ And it just kind of hit me,” Josephson said. “What kind of discretionary funds does a school have? Especially like Okemos. The interesting thing about Okemos is that we get no more money than other schools and sometimes even less. Just because we’re in an upper-middle class community doesn’t mean we have discretionary funds.”
The lack of funding for disadvantaged students means that even everyday decisions made at a district level take special considerations according to Ash.
“With every decision we make, we must be diligent about considering the potential impact on families and children who are economically disadvantaged,” Ash said. “If there is the potential to negatively impact the family or limit access to a program or experience for specific children, we make every effort to problem solve this on the front end. The important piece is to ensure every child has equal access and it’s our responsibility to keep this at the forefront of our efforts, allowing children and families to remain involved and keep their pride intact.”
Students and family members of students are encouraged to seek out counselors to ensure they receive all the resources the schools have to offer. School psychologist Anna Sabatino would urge students to talk to the school’s at-risk aide, Ashley Abrams, if they are really struggling.
“These students have a lot stacked against them,” Alexander said. “Most are dealing with problems that the average high school student does not have to think about. My goal is to make sure they are prepared once they leave high school with the knowledge, skills and ability for post-secondary education or to go directly into the workplace, depending on their individual plans and goals.”
Low-income students who choose not to see or confide in a counselor may remain anonymous throughout their entire high school career. This leaves staff like Josephson guessing and hoping those students get what they need.
“When we’re trying to make sure we’re meeting those students needs, it could be far greater than that, but I can’t tell,” Josephson said. “We just don’t know.”