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Nurturing needy students

In a classroom they all look alike – young, happy and vivacious.

But children who come from “needy backgrounds,” as some local educators would put it, sometimes have to give more effort to perform at par with their more fortunate peers.

Low income, drug abuse and violence at home can all conspire against a student’s performance in class. Schools fight back by offering nurturing relationships with school staff, counseling, and nutritious, free lunches.



A needy child’s biggest challenge most often is taking charge of his or her education at an age when the child usually doesn’t have the maturity to do so.

“They should have their childhood,” Director Caleb Buckley of Yuba River Charter School said. “Instead, they sometimes wind up being the adult in the family. There can be a 9-year-old taking care of a 3-year-old sibling, at the same time getting their parents out of bed in the morning and making sure they have food.”




Such children’s needs flow from a complex set of circumstances.

“Students that come from low-income families sometimes don’t have the support at home because the parents are working more than one job,” said Mike Distefano, former principal of Ready Springs School in Penn Valley.

“With low-income families, some students tend to struggle academically. But there are others who do well. Because they come from low-income families doesn’t mean they (all) will struggle,” said Distefano.

Students from families where the parents are involved in drug abuse generally have more needs than children from low-income backgrounds, said Jon Byerrum, superintendent of the Grass Valley School District.

“Lot of the time, parents from substance-abuse families are very occupied with their own needs,” Byerrum said. “As a result, they ignore the needs of their children. That could be true if the parents were drinking alcohol to a great excess or taking other kinds of drugs.”

Distefano agreed.

“Due to the drug use, parents may not have time to give support to their children,” he said. “If the mother was taking alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, those kids could be late in their learning or may be hyperactive.”

Diana Pasquini, educator at Grizzly Hill School, believes “it is the root of the poverty that affects the kids.”

“Drug use of parents, physical and psychological problems of parents where they are not able to work, isolation of the family (when there aren’t many relatives nearby) are some of the issues that could cause poverty,” Pasquini said. “I see kids who come from low-income backgrounds who excel. So I don’t think it’s the matter of money. I think it’s important that children are well-cared about.”

“The most important element in the development of a child is a meaningful relationship with an adult,” whether that’s a parent, a grandparent, a foster parent or adopted parent, Byerrum said. From those meaningful relationships, the child can develop appropriate social and intellectual skills despite what may be going on at home.

Remedies for the afflicted

Schools have many ways of helping needy children.

At Union Hill School in Grass Valley, about 20 percent of 750 students use the free and reduced lunch program, said Rod Fivelstad, superintendent of the school district with one school.

“There is an eligibility form that parents fill out and submit,” he said. “The school secretary takes it in and evaluates if the family is eligible for free lunch or reduced lunch based on the number of members in the family and the family income.”

Union Hill also has a full-time counselor working with the entire preschool through eighth-grade population, Fivelstad said.

In addition, an intervention counselor works with seventh- and eighth-graders once a week, he added.

Counselors are also a part of a student study team made up of teachers, parents and other school staff that help students who’re struggling academically.

Yuba River Charter School in Nevada City does not offer free and reduced lunch programs as that would require a licensed kitchen with staff, which the school can’t afford, Yuba River Charter’s Buckley said.

However, being a charter school with greater parent involvement, families know each other more and help out, he said.

“When we do a food drive, we redirect food to families in need within our classrooms,” Buckley said. “Whenever there are field trips or fees that need to be paid, parents chip in for those who cannot pay.

“I have a couple of kids who can’t get a ride to school from their immediate family (because their parents have drug problems). So I have other families who pick the kids up and bring them to school,” Buckley said.

Once a year before winter break, Yuba River Charter hosts a musical evening at which a hat is passed around and parents can donate money, Buckley said.

“We identify families in need, and they get a check for $300 to $400,” he added.

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To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion.com or call 477-4229.


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