Economic Privilege and Elementary School

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My daughter’s first grade class reciting Langston Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred”

My children attend public school.  This means that they have classmates with a wide range of financial means.  In addition to all the kids whose families can buy winter coats, birthday presents, and computers, there are kids in each class who live in subsidized housing and whose families do not own cars.

While all the kids share the same teachers and classrooms, they have very different experiences…even while at school.  How resourced your family is makes a big difference in your daily experiences. This is true even in a place like a school where teachers and administrators are working hard to give each child an equal and rich experience.

Let me illustrate with a few examples.  Take snacksOur school asks us to provide our kids with two snacks each day alongside the lunch we send in.  While kids who meet the national guidelines are provided with free lunches, they are not provided with free snacks.  So, day after day, these children sit by hungry and isolated while their classmates snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon.  And, in our school, kids are prohibited from sharing food (presumably due to concerns about food allergies). So, generous kids who notice their classmates’ situation cannot even try to remedy it.

As part of the solution, caring teachers sometimes keep extra snacks on hand to provide every day to kids who need them.  Understandably, though, most teachers are not able to do this consistently throughout the year.  They shouldn’t be expected to.  And wise teachers realize that they can’t just send out mass emails to all the class parents asking them to take turns supplying extra snacks. To send such an email would be to shame the parents who are not able to provide snacks for their kids.  It is a tricky situation.

Or take Halloween parties.  At our elementary school, Halloween is celebrated by having the kids bring costumes to school to wear in a school-wide parade followed by parties in each classroom.  Embedded in this truly lovely tradition are certain assumptions.  For example, it is assumed that each child has a parent who has internet access and can read the school’s updates so that they can help their child be prepared for Halloween.   It is also assumed that each kid can afford a Halloween costume or has the creative support to make one.

Unless someone intercedes for the kids for whom these assumptions do not hold true, on Halloween there will be multiple children who show up without a costume and without a parent to join them at the class party, and who end up feeling very left out.  Children who stand out in their difference and suffer for it.  And remember, Halloween costumes may seem trivial and minor to adults, but they are of great importance to a kid.  My heart aches for the child who comes to school on Halloween and cannot join in the fun as everyone else proudly dons their costumes.

Or let’s talk about birthday parties.  Recently, in my daughters’ kindergarten class, the entire class was invited to a birthday party for one of the little girls.  It was notable (at least to me), though, that only a certain portion of the kids came.  And that portion consisted of kids 1) whose parents had email and could receive the Evite,  2) whose families could afford to buy a gift and  3) who had a car and could drive to the jumping warehouse (my personal term) several miles away.

And if you are tempted to take comfort in the idea, as I was at first, that surely the kids who didn’t attend the party weren’t hurt by it because what you don’t know can’t hurt you, let me mention that the kids had all been talking about the upcoming party in class and at recess the week before.  The children whose parents did not have access to the Evite because they did not have internet access most likely thought they had not been invited.  That has no doubt happened repeatedly to them.

As I sat at the jumping warehouse watching my kids bound from inflatable apparatus to inflatable apparatus and thought about all this, it was all I could do not to cry on behalf of the children who were not there that morning. Children who had endured a week of birthday-party lead-up on the playground, all the while thinking they had not been invited.

When my oldest daughter was in 4 year old pre-school, my husband was a full-time grad student with a small part-time job and I was at home full-time with our three kids.  My husband had been in grad school for three years by then and we were close to running out of money.  I felt choked with pain when our daughter came home and excitedly asked if she could start attending “Lunch Bunch,” a program in which kids could stay at school for an extra hour to eat their lunches together and play.  The cost was $6/day and my daughter wanted to attend with her friends two times per week.  We sent her one time so that she could at least have the experience, but we did not think we could afford to send her regularly.  I remember well the pain I felt in having to tell her no–a shy child who only rarely asked to do social activities like this on her own.  Lunch Bunch was simply out of our reach at that moment and it hurt.  I can only imagine how it would feel if these kinds of no’s were a constant way of life for my daughter and for me.

I am writing about these realities not because I want to suggest large-scale, policy type changes.  I have no idea what those would be.  Nor am I writing because I want to cast blame on school administrators, teachers or other leaders.  Rather, I am writing because I want to cast light on the tricky social dynamics of financially diverse settings.  Even more, I want to bring attention to the particular challenges of poor children who attend school with wealthier peers.

I also desire to encourage people who interact in public schools (and other diverse, public settings) to look around and notice each child in their kids’ classes, particularly the ones on the margin.  Begin to note who does not bring snacks and who is missing snow pants.  Notice which parents do not list email addresses in the school directory.  Think through some of the assumptions that underlie the events, activities, and even assignments given at your school.  Perhaps ask your kids’ teachers if there are cultural and financial differences in their classes that are adding up to certain kids being excluded, whether subtly or overtly.  Trust me, they know.

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Ask your children if there are kids who are left out, who are not treated well, or who don’t seem to have all the things the other kids have.  They know the answer.  It was my daughter who first alerted me to the snack issue….in March of her first grade year.  I was dismayed to learn that this situation had gone on quietly for seven months without anyone helping the teacher make sure all the kids had something to eat at snack-time.

And then brainstorm ways to intervene or provide for these needs.  Perhaps the PTO can host a costume give-away at Halloween.  Maybe you can contact the hosting parent when a birthday Evite goes out and you know certain kids are going to end up excluded.  Maybe you could call the moms of kids who are on the fringe and ask how they are enjoying the school and if there is anything you can do to help them feel more included.  When you are scheduling play-dates, especially for the younger grades where kids often rotate best friends on a weekly basis, make sure to invite a diversity of kids.  Go out of your way to introduce yourself to many parents, not just the ones of kids whom your kids gravitate to.

While quite small, these steps might make a tangible difference for some individual children.  Indeed, let us not defer dreams of birthday parties, Halloween costumes, and large inflatables any longer.

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Post-script: For poor kids, the types of experiences I describe above continue all the way through school, even into college.  See Coming Out as Poor at an Elite University. And see Poor and Traumatized at Harvard.

© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.

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8 thoughts on “Economic Privilege and Elementary School

    1. Adrianne, Only a very few still do handwritten invitations. And, yes, if you are the host of the party, you can easily say “no gifts.” The trick is when you are simply a guest but can see the issues for some of the kids. After this last party, I decided that next time there is a “everyone in the class is invited” party, I’m going to contact the host and make sure she understands the life circumstances of some of the kids so she makes sure that all the kids truly get invited. I will probably also volunteer to drive anyone who needs a ride.

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