Poverty In Our Schools

chalk board photo

The school principal finds the tiny Grade 2 boy hunched over in the hallway, sent out from his classroom because he’s been disruptive and rude to his teacher. His face buried in his hands, the tears spill.
“What’s the matter? What’s going on?” asks the principal.
“I’m angry.”

“Because I can’t go on the field trip.”

Why? The field trip costs $2.

POVERTY IN OUR PETERBOROUGH SCHOOLS                                                             

By Melodie McCullough

This boy is one of thousands of children growing up poor in Peterborough, doing his best to make it through an ordinary school day.

“Daily I see poverty in my school”, said Martin Twiss, principal of Keith Wightman School in the city’s south end, recently. “Just today with the temperature at -20 there were three kids who came without mittens.”

One in five children under the age of six are living in poverty in Peterborough, according to the 2011 census. They arrive at school hungry, without warm boots and coats or a backpack, with a meagre lunch, and unable to afford extracurricular activities. What does this mean when it comes to how they learn?

“As a community, we know some schools have more (low-income families) than others, just based on the neighbourhoods they’re in and the communities they serve,” continued Twiss, who has been at Keith Wightman for three years. “Just like adults, if kids are hungry they are distracted, irritable, quick to become angry, unable to concentrate on school work and deeply fatigued. It also causes illness and absenteeism.”

It shows up in many and varied ways — social anxiety, behaviour problems, lack of school success, and everything in between. Students, as well as teachers and school administrators, face its challenges every single day.

“…We must look beyond the visible indicators of poverty to the social conditions that produce it.”: Ontario Ministry of Education

Twiss, who has been in the education field for 25 years as a teacher and administrator, said poverty can be the result of a recent change such a divorce, or loss of job by a single parent. There are many more grand-parents on fixed incomes raising children now, too.

“Families that have disabilities are also families that struggle quite a bit. Everything is that much harder,” he said. “It’s a really big factor.”

But the city’s economic situation is a major contributor, he said.

“Both parents may be working, and may work hard, but they are not high-paying jobs. There is not much disposable income.”

Home environments are less stable, with children often left on their own when parents work, he explained. With so much economic uncertainty, he also sees the potential for adult addiction to the newer and stronger drugs available now. He said it adds up to more severe learning and behaviour problems in children, and he sees this first-hand.

Brenda Dales has been chair of the local Food For Kids program for the last 17 years, and is executive director of the Peterborough Social Planning Council.

“What’s happened in Peterborough is we’ve lost a lot of high-income jobs,” she said.  “The ones available now are service industry, part-time. Precarious employment is a huge issue. There are no health care benefits. Affordable housing is a huge issue.”

“There is poverty in this community and with limited income, many people have to make decisions: paying rent or buying food,” she continued, “and housing is usually the priority because you have to have a roof over your head.

Some facts. . .

Child poverty rates double for those in female-headed, single-parent households, families with disabilities, and children of First Nations, Metis, Inuit, racialized and new immigrant families. (Ontario Ministry of Education)

  • 7,728 people used food banks in March, 2013 in Peterborough and 3,153 were children. 46.8% were children under the age of 18 (Greater Peterborough’s Vital Signs, 2014)
  •  in 2011-2012, more than 11.9% of the Peterborough population was within food-insecure households compared to 7.7 % in Ontario (Greater Peterborough’s Vital Signs 2014)
  • 57% of workers in Peterborough fall below the living wage (Greater Peterborough’s Vital Signs 2014)
  • 25% of students provincially in low-income elementary schools are classified as having special education  needs, compared to 13% of those in high-income schools PovertyChildrenFamilies
  • High-income schools are significantly more likely to have a gifted education program, and students in high-income schools are more likely to be identified as gifted. (People for Education)
  • 25% of elementary students in low income schools receive special education support, compared to 13% of students in high income schools (People for Education)
  • Provincially the richest schools fund-raise at five times the rate of the schools with lowest family incomes (People for  Education)
  • Children living in poverty are more likely to have poorer developmental outcomes, to drop out of school sooner, and to suffer from asthma and chronic diseases (Peterborough County-City Health Unit)

Twiss said the provincial government is trying to provide more supports, such as its mental health initiative, but is not keeping up with demand.

“What I’m finding is there’s a very slow turn-around to access and support for these children. Where you’d like to build supports in weeks, it sometimes takes years. It’s very frustrating for parents and school staff.”

Fund-raising discrepancies between “rich” and “poor” schools don’t help, either.

“That’s certainly one gap that everyone knows is there,” said Twiss. “A lot depends on school communities. The well-to-do collect much more money and can also ask parents to pay for more things.”

He would like to see some way to balance the funding generated by school councils. In some school boards, schools are asked to donate 10% of what they raise to a communal pot to be used by all schools, he said.

But that’s where the wider community plays a role. Remember the three kids who came to school without mitts? They were given warm mittens donated by the local Red Cross, Northminster United Church and Pridie Collection-Boutique Yarn Shop. Other local groups like Teachers for Kids, the YMCA, Royal Bank, and Food For Kids have provided backpacks filled with school supplies, a learn-to-skate program, swimming lessons, money for field trips, and a healthy universal breakfast program.

“What many people don’t realise is the extent to which school staff — teachers, secretaries, custodians — step up to help kids who need something.”: Martin Twiss

Keith Wightman School Council fund-raises two or three times a year to support student learning activities and subsidize student agendas. (It can’t rely on every parent having a computer or internet.)

With 288 students from diverse religious and cultural backgrounds at the school, including many First Nations families, many of whom cannot afford extra-curricular activities, Twiss likes to bring a variety of cultural experiences to the school by way of theatre, music, and special events. They’ve had native hoop dance displays, and lion dancers for Chinese New Year. This year he’s working on break dance lessons.

And the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board has a poverty intervention fund, he said, which schools can access if there is a dire special need.

But what many people don’t realise is the extent to which school staff — teachers, secretaries, custodians — step up to help kids who need something.

“Often we just donate whatever is needed,” said Twiss. “It’s very common. Staff spend a lot of their money supporting kids in many different ways.”

Some ideas …

Diane Therrien, facilitator of community education and engagement for the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network and city councillor for Town Ward, said poverty in our schools is concentrated in the downtown area, and it’s getting worse. Solutions are tied to income, she believes.

Helping people find employment, increasing social assistance and Ontario Disability Support Program rates, and providing a basic income guarantee are some things that could help, she said.

“There’s a lot of solutions out there. It’s just a matter of acting on them. It’s something we need to keep working on to break that cycle. You can’t take kids out of poverty without taking adults out of poverty. It’s a systemic issue. It costs us all in the long run so it’s something we need to be working together on.”

An Ontario Ministry of Education report from February, 2015, titled “What Works? Research in to Practice” suggests a number of ideas for schools and school boards: enhance teacher awareness through professional development to understand and be sensitive to issues of poverty; understand the context in which students and families live; expect all students to succeed; engage families outside and inside the walls of the school; and forge community partnerships.

“Eradicating poverty is a complex issue,” says the report. “We must focus on the conditions of poverty rather than attributing the problem to students and families who experience poverty. It may be easy to assign blame to families when our students are not performing in school, or it may be very tempting to lower learning expectations for students… We must look beyond the visible indicators of poverty to the social conditions that produce it.”


One of the bright spots in the discussion about poverty in our schools is the non-profit Food For Kids Peterborough program, which provides healthy breakfasts to 47 schools in all school boards in Peterborough city and county, serving two million meals a year. Continuing these excellent food programs now underway in most schools is what’s important to Brenda Dales.

Part of the Student Nutrition Program of Central East Ontario, Food for Kids has been operating here for close to 20 years, with the help of volunteers and donors from the community. The meals are inclusive, meaning any child can help themselves to a nutritious start to the day, and not feel singled out.

Partnering with Kawartha Food Share and buying local fruits, vegetables and milk products is a main focus, explained Dales.

Reports show children are hungry at school because of long bus rides; hurried morning routines; lack of food at home; lack of parental supervision at mealtimes; not being hungry when they first wake up; and early morning activities and practices. And:

  • 24% of Gr. 4 students in Ontario are not eating breakfast every day; by Gr. 8, 47% of girls and 33% of boys skip breakfast
  • 68% of boys (nine-13 years) and 62% of girls (nine-13 years) consume less than five servings of vegetables and fruit/day
  • 83% of girls (10-16 years) do not have three daily servings of milk products in a day.

“We do know there are families where children of low economic background don’t eat breakfast. But the food program is not just for people in poverty,” said Dales. “Student nutrition is a very important part of learning for everyone. With proper nutrition in the day, students can excel academically.”




Classism and poverty picture books recommended by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario:


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