Newport teachers get lesson partly about poverty, mostly about empathy

Posted at 3:20 PM, Feb 21, 2017

NEWPORT, Ky. -- The lesson was partly about poverty and a lot about empathy. For teachers in Newport Independent Schools, a three-hour simulation taught them what students might experience when their families struggle just to feed them.

Ninety-one percent of the district's students are on free or reduced lunch. One in seven is homeless -- meaning some 220 children are living in shelters, cars, tents, with friends or family members while still trying to get an education. That affects a student's ability to concentrate in class and learn.

During Tuesday's exercise, each staff member was given an identity and a challenging set of family circumstances. Then they had to work together to figure out how to get bills paid, food on the table and deal with emergencies and unexpected expenses.

Jessica Gross, a special education teacher, was assigned to be a 50-year-old grandmother raising two grandchildren. Her fictional husband, played by kindergarten teacher Kaleigh Rougraff, was on disability. They had an income of about $1,500 a month.

"The utilities didn't get paid, we didn't get any food, did we? OK," Gross said. "No clothes this month or week? So what did we pay?"

IN DEPTH: Childhood poverty in the Tri-State

The group quickly learned it isn't easy to get up once you're down: Someone stole $100 from the fictional family, then a pipe broke.

"You can see the defeat on people in our family's faces," Rougraff said. "It's been hard."

The lesson helps teachers "see what it's like to walk in the shoes of our customers -- our parents and students -- to gain a little bit more empathy about the challenges they face," Superintendent Kelly Middleton said. "Maybe why a child comes in very frustrated at the beginning of the day, maybe why they act out -- and if we have that empathy, I think we can teach them better."

School is where the children feel normal eight hours a day, but after that, it's difficult on them.

COLUMN: Newport Intermediate teaches students they can be leaders

Teachers already do summer home visits to help them understand their students' struggles. Kristy McNally, the district's homeless coordinator, tries to dig into every individual situation to know the children better.

"I want to hear their story," McNally said. "I want to know the nitty-gritty because if I know the nitty-gritty then I can help the better.  I can do more."

There's a food pantry at the intermediate school and McNally personally delivers items to families in their homes or to high school students too shy to ask for help.