Simulation sheds light on reality of suburban poverty

Palatine High School Assistant Principal Chris Cirrincione counts his money once, twice, then once more, placing the bills in neat piles on the floor in front of his chair.

It won't be enough to get through a week. Not with requests for money from the school to chip in on supplies; not without the public transportation passes necessary to get to the pawnshop, where his family already pawned a stove and a stereo. Not when the family's lone wage earner, an assistant principal from Prospect High School, has been late and won't get full pay.

As bills and obligations pile up, Cirrincione strategizes and counts the money again. It's still not enough. The family will have to go without food or clothing or face potential eviction.

This wasn't true reality for Cirrincione; it was a stressful simulation staged in the Harper College field house for educators from districts 211, 214, 220 and Harper, who were assigned roles of real people in or near poverty and tasked with surviving four, 15-minute weeks.

But it is reality for an increasing number of Northwest suburban families, as poverty in the suburbs continues to grow and more individuals struggle just to make ends meet.

"We wanted our educators to reflect on the realities our students face every single day," said Josh Schumacher, a Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 assistant superintendent.

"As we continue conversations about equity, we must understand that this reality is here, right now. We must truly understand the struggle if we are to find the right support and resources for our students and families."

The simulation was presented by the Northwest Educational Council for Student Success, a secondary and postsecondary regional educational collaborative focused on student success via career planning and opportunities, professional development and enriched collaboration.

District 211 administrators staged the simulation, playing the roles of social service agency workers, landlords, teachers, police, pawnshop owners and bosses.

NECSS' first "Suburbanization of Poverty" event, held in 2018, had a profound impact on participants, executive director Nancy Awdziejczyk said, and knew it was vital to revisit the topic.

"Our districts continued to focus on this work during the pandemic, a time period that exacerbated the challenges facing people living in poverty," she said.

"We knew we needed to elevate this message and continue to leverage our resources to support our community by providing this experience to more educational leaders and board members in our region."

The event also included a lecture and discussion on the suburbanization of poverty by Elizabeth Kneebone, who joined the group via Zoom and delivered data and research reports.

Kneebone is research director for the Terner Center for Housing Innovation, and her expertise includes the geography of poverty in the United States. She previously was a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, where she led the program's work on urban and suburban poverty and co-authored the book "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America."

As part of her NECSS presentation, she noted the need for suburban nonprofits to accept donations for those in poverty and discussed the reality that a growing percentage of Chicago's poor live in the suburbs, with high housing prices and inadequate public transportation.

The simulation had those in attendance take on names, ages and jobs and be placed in families based on real people who agreed to have their narratives shared. Many aren't living in federal-level poverty, defined as $26,500 annually for a family of four, but still greatly struggle.

The groups debriefed afterward.

"I couldn't believe how stressful it felt," said Tony Bradburn, director of diversity, equity and inclusion in District 214. "Those of us working in the schools know poverty exists. But until you've walked in their shoes, you truly don't recognize the reality of their daily struggle. Our role is to make sure they have a safe space that embraces them and helps them succeed."

Harper College President Avis Proctor, who played the role of a young student in poverty during the simulation, noted discussions already have begun in earnest regarding increased resources in the suburbs, such as opportunities for better transit.

NECSS was formed, in part, with a strategic eye on breaking down barriers to postsecondary education and success.

The Northwest Educational Council for Student Success hosted an expert, originally from Chicago, to discuss the growing reality of poverty in the suburbs. Representatives from districts 211, 214, 220 and Harper College attended. Courtesy of District 211
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