In Saugerties, experiential simulation examines the impacts of poverty on education

Do we really understand the stresses poor folks go through? Faculty across the Saugerties school district took part October 9 in a “poverty simulation” organized by Ulster BOCES, a role-playing exercise designed to give teachers and administrators a clearer understanding of what some of the district’s students go through on a daily basis. 

Superintendent Kirk Reinhardt thought the poverty simulation was an effective tool for school officials and staff. It forced them to understand what families in need go through, he said, and also led to conversations about how to shape curriculum and homework to ensure all students are on as level a playing field as possible. 

“It’s like role-playing, so you could be a 25-year-old with two kids who just lost his job,” explained Reinhardt. “The simulation has set up that there’s a bank, there’s community service, there’s everything you would need in the community.”

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Participants in the simulation are given lists of things they can and can’t do depending upon the role they’ve been given. They have a wide range of realistic options for dealing with a variety of everyday hurdles. “So let’s say you lost your job but your rent’s due, and then you go to the bank and you find out you don’t have money, and maybe your ID is not valid, your car insurance ran out or something else,” said Reinhardt. “It’s pretty moving. Sometimes, you know, if you haven’t lived it, you don’t know it.”

Reinhardt cited a parent having to fill out multiple housing forms only to find out there’s a 45-day wait. That’s frustrating. “But you’re getting evicted in 15 days, and you’re sitting there now in the simulation, and you get into it and have to figure it out.”

The poverty simulation grew out of a workshop for administrators by Ulster Boces nearly three years ago. Sponsored by the Boces leadership institute in partnership with the Capital Region Boces, “Poverty: Breaking the Silence” brought together more than 50 school administrators from three counties for an interactive and immersive experience. 

“It may feel like a game, but it’s not,” said Valerie Kelsey of the Capital Region Boces in a February 2018 press release. “The scenarios are real, and the object is to sensitize you to the daily reality of life in poverty.”

Each hour of the simulation represents a month. Participants get a sobering look at how the realities faced by families in need can negatively impact a student’s ability to focus on school. 

According to Reinhardt, 49 percent of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced meals. “So if you’ve got a class of 24, you could possibly have twelve students that go through these things,” he said. “Maybe they don’t have their heat turned on. Or maybe they are scraping things together on the weekends to get three good meals.”

The exercise also illustrated the ways in which students might face a comparatively uphill battle when it comes to simple academic tasks like homework. “When you start really looking at equitability, is education economically driven?” asked Reinhardt. “You know, do we make assignments that you have to have WiFi to do? And I’m not saying that’s a bad idea, but you have to make sure everyone has an alternative to sign in if they don’t have WiFi at home.”

When it comes to school supplies, the beginning of the school year can be stressful for impoverished families. “If they need four notebooks and three binders, and somebody has four kids and they’re barely getting by, that’s a lot of money,” said Reinhardt. “So are we looking at what we ask our students to do when they leave us? At the end of the day, you know, if they have a lot of homework, but they’re babysitting their siblings because their parents have to work two jobs, when can they get it done?”

The answer isn’t to not give students homework, the Saugerties superintendent said, but rather to ensure that homework is realistically manageable by all students, regardless of economic situation.

“That’s an obligation we have,” Reinhardt said. “And you’re looking for equitability. That’s the big, that’s the biggest case. Are we giving equitable education for every student regardless of economic backgrounds? We have to get to that point right there, that whenever a student leaves public high school, they got the same education regardless of their economic background.”

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