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Christina Salas of Washington Elementary in Auburn poses with granola bars she got at school from the Food to Go program. Photo by Phyllis Fletcher.

Christina Salas of Washington Elementary in Auburn poses with granola bars she got at school from the Food to Go program. Photo by Phyllis Fletcher.


Auburn School Helps Kids Eat On The Weekend

Phyllis Fletcher

The recession has hit some towns harder than others. Estimates from the census bureau show unemployment in Auburn increased by four times. A lot of people who lost jobs have kids in school.

Pauline Thomas: "The stress level on the families has really gone up. The stress level on the kids has gone up."

That's Pauline Thomas. She's the principal at Washington Elementary in Auburn.

Today we kick off a four–part series on public education and the recession with KUOW's Phyllis Fletcher.


Pauline Thomas can tell you how the recession hit Washington Elementary. The number of kids at her school who live in poverty is more than 70 percent.

Thomas: "The biggest impact, I think, has been on the families that have been single–income families, or mom and dad have had jobs and they're coming in this fall with no jobs."

She says parents come in and tell her because they can't afford some of the basics to send their kids to school, like pencils and paper.

Thomas: "And as a matter of fact, we have a supply cabinet in our counselor's office for kids that come to school without supplies. We don't want that to be an added stress in their lives right now."

You hear that word when the staff talks about the kids: stress.

Bonnie Cannon: "It shows up differently."

Bonnie Cannon is the counselor at Washington.

Cannon: "Sometimes they withdraw. Sometimes they're aggressive and defiant. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they spend a lot of time in the health room. They have tummy troubles."

All signs that a kid is worried about something; all things that make it hard to participate in class.

One of the basic needs a school takes care of for its students is food. Kids living in poverty can get breakfast and lunch at school for free. Since the recession hit, Washington Elementary has been finding students who need even more help.

Leslie Soule: "And it looks like this week we have ravioli and some granola bars. It looks like about two lunches worth."

Leslie Soule works for an organization called Communities in Schools. They coordinate donations from a food bank and private donors. People who work in the schools give the food to kids on Fridays to take home for the weekend.

Soule: "And we fill them up in backpacks that look exactly like everyone else's. I just have a list of students and we put it on their desk at lunchtime or at recess time when all the other kids are out of the class, so it's a discreet way of delivering the food to the kids and knowing that they're going to be OK."'

They're trying to be discreet for the sake of the kids. But it's not just the kids who might have feelings about being singled out.

Esther Salas: "Kind of funny. I was kind of embarrassed actually, because I didn't want people to think that we didn't have any food."

Esther Salas has two kids at Washington Elementary, and two teenagers and she takes care of her 4–year–old niece. Esther's husband worked in construction; she worked at a fast–food chain. Construction work dried up and her husband was laid off. Then Esther's lupus got so bad, she had to quit her job. Then in December the interest rate on their mortgage jumped.

Salas: "And we couldn't pay it. It was just too much. It was close to almost $3,000 a month and we didn't, we didn't have it. We got foreclosed out of our home so we had to move with my sister."

The next month, her eight–year–old daughter Christina came home with one of the backpacks and a permission slip.

Christina Salas: "I told her, do we need this? And she read it, and then she said, do we have enough food?"

Christina told her mom she would check.

Christina Salas: "And so I checked and then I told my mom we just have two raviolis, two green beans and one corn."

Phyllis Fletcher: "And what'd she say?"

Christina Salas: "She said OK. Then she signed up."

Christina says her friends know what the backpack is about. When they saw her get one they asked about it.

Christina Salas: "They said, you have it now? Then I said, yeah, 'cause I don't have enough food. Then they said, oh, me too."

About 20 kids get food backpacks at Washington Elementary, and the program has a waitlist.

Christina's school bus picks up kids from other schools. One of them knew what the backpack was and made fun of her. He called her poor. Christina cried. She told her mom she didn't want to bring the backpack home on the bus anymore. But the food was helping everyone at home, and her mom was over her own embarrassment.

Esther Salas: "I just told her, just, you know, we're not poor, we're middle class. I said, you know, we're blessed they want to help us. Let people say what they say. It don't matter."

And she says it doesn't seem to matter when Christina is at school. She has friends. She does well. And she was even honored as a student of the month at an all–school assembly for being trustworthy and telling the truth.

Christina's counselor Bonnie Cannon says it's harder than it used to be to pull kids out of class, talk to them and offer help. I asked why. She hesitated.

Cannon: "Do we want to go there?"

She explains kids need as much time in class as possible to do well on tests mandated by the federal government. When test scores come back low, a school can lose students, teachers, the principal and money under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Cannon: "So it's harder to sit down with them and have good chunks of time to really understand them and get to know what's going on. The larger the class sizes get, the less time teachers have to spend with individual students. So, it's the economy really."

The economy: As a result of the recession, funding for K–12 education has been slashed and schools have more poor students to serve. Tomorrow we go to Mount Vernon where the number of homeless students quadrupled during the recession.

I'm Phyllis Fletcher, KUOW News.

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