Last October, Great Bend eighth graders took part in a simulation of adult life: caring for children, paying bills and dealing with unexpected emergencies at “Reality U.” On Monday, it was the teachers’ turn to experience the world of at-risk students during the “Poverty Simulation” presented by Southwest Plains Regional Education Center.
The Great Bend High School gym was renamed “Realville,” and educators were assigned roles as students or older members of low-income families in the community. Others were assigned roles such as bankers, police officers and school teachers.
Each family was challenged to find the assistance, transportation and cash needed to live on a budget for one month. For the simulation, each week was 15 minutes long, followed by a two-minute weekend when families planned their strategies for the next week.
Facilitators Jen Stelter and Kara Smith challenged the participants to keep their families secure, get their children to school and make sure their preschoolers were cared for.
Naturally, it wasn’t easy. Misty Lanterman, a third-grade teacher at Park Elementary, started the game in jail. She was assigned the role of Paulo, a 36-year-old man with several children: a 21-year-old son (Maggie Miller, special education teacher), 13-year-old twin daughters (Barb Thoren and Kelsey Perry from Park Elementary) and a 3-year-old son (represented by a doll).
“I work 40 hours a week for $10.75 an hour,” Lanterman/Paulo said. He worried that the family wouldn’t have the benefit of his check while he was in jail. “I couldn’t make bail, so I have to serve time.”
Other families had adults at work, but that created problems when the school called because a child was sick – or suspended. One boy brought a gun to class and was taken to the jail.
Before the month was over, one of the twins was suspended from school for a week and the other brought home a doctor’s note saying she needed glasses, which would cost $50. Miller tried to get help at the social services table, but before the paperwork was processed Stelter announced the first week was over.
A case worker intoned, “I’m very sorry ma’am. I will process these first thing Monday morning,” and put up a “closed” sign.
Nancy Schuetz, who teaches English as a Second Language, said the roles in the simulation were true to situations Great Bend teachers see in real-life. Her character was Winona Wiscott, a 50-year-old grandmother with a husband who is disabled. Winona is raising her grandchildren, whose father was in jail.
Natalie Boss, who teaches at Jefferson Elementary, played the owner of Big Dave’s Pawn Shop. She received several televisions and stereos from families that needed cash before their utilities were shut off or they were evicted for not paying their mortgages. She closed the Pawn Shop after running out of money. Meanwhile, the payday loan shop would advance cash to those with jobs — for a fee.
Hamming it up
Teachers had fun improvising as things went from bad to worse for their characters. When kindergarten teacher Amber Snook, playing Police Officer Snook, snapped handcuffs on first-grade teacher Jessica Ferguson (playing 17-year-old Ed Epperman), Ferguson groused, “And I could have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”
Stelter acknowledged that the Poverty Simulation has built-in chaos but said it presents a view of the overall challenges families in poverty face. Program materials state: “No matter which role one is assigned, the simulation will get you outside of your life and into the life of someone not so unlike the people in your area living in poverty.”
The wrap-up for this exercise in empathy allowed teachers to process what they had experienced, and discuss how they might guide families living in poverty to support within the community.
“Think about the kids in your classes and the families you deal with,” Stelter said. She noted that 132,000 Kansas children under 18 live in poverty, according to the 2015 Kansas Kids Count Databook.
Middle school and high school teachers attended the Poverty Simulation in the morning while elementary teachers received advanced training on using digital classroom materials from Discovery Education. In the afternoon the two groups switched places.
Students had the day off during the district-wide in-service and will be back in school on Tuesday.