Being a high school student is not easy. Each day is filled with academic expectations, social pressures from peers, and the looming question of what will I do after high school? For many, the challenges do not end there. At Brainerd High School approximately four out of 10 students come from a family which is near or below the poverty level. In our large comprehensive high school of 2,000 students, that equals 800 students. Although opportunities are extended to all students, poverty can have a dramatic effect on a high school experience. Here are examples of poverty affecting a high school student ...
• School readiness: Prior to the start of a school year, students prepare by shopping for school supplies and new clothes. Purchasing even modest supplies, a family will spend $10 to $20 per high school student. The back to school sales are exciting for many but for a family living in poverty new shoes, or new jeans, will not be a reality.
• Activities: Brainerd High School offers many extracurricular activities for students. Due to limited federal, state, and local budgets, these activities charge students a fee for participation. Although assistance is available to help subsidize participation fees, many families are unable to afford equipment, travel expenses, and incidental costs associated with these opportunities. And in reality, many families do not want to ask for help.
• Attendance: Good attendance can be a challenge for students who come from homes in poverty. Older siblings miss school at times to help care for younger siblings when parents must work. Some high school students obtain part-time employment to earn money which in turn can affect good attendance and school performance. Part-time jobs many times go late into the night — which in turn affects time for studying and for adequate sleep.
• High school memories: Students who live in poverty miss important events and experiences most of us want for our teens. Going out for pizza and a movie, getting dressed up for the prom, or buying a yearbook is out of reach for students living in poverty.
Is there help for our high school students living in poverty? Yes, thankfully, there’s help. A small relief for families is the federal school food program which provides breakfast and lunch at a reduced or free rate for families who qualify. This program can help students get a nutritious meal twice a day during the school year. Many local civic groups and churches offer free school supplies for families in need. Community members in Brainerd have formed groups like Warrior Way and Music Matters to help subsidize fees so students can participate in school activities. Finally, local business owners routinely hire teenagers so money can be earned to buy items for home and school.
More than help offered to our students, we can see hope. Each day our students come to high school they are one day closer to breaking free from the confines of poverty. A strong education will be their best path to be gainfully employed and live a life of financial independence. Their education will lead them to opportunities to own a home, provide for a family, and save for their retirement. Education can help break the cycle of poverty they live in.
All students have a right to a quality education. In addition, I’d argue all students deserve to experience the many joys and experiences of high school, no matter what their economic background.
ANDREA RUSK is principal at Brainerd High School.