Kathy Pickett grew up in a family of 11 siblings. Money was always tight.

At the time, she said, she didn’t realize they lived in poverty. It was just the way life was.

Now, as a dean at Mulberry Middle School, she talks to students about her own background to try to encourage them to overcome theirs.

She has seen how the school divides socially into the “haves” and “have nots,” and she doesn’t want students to feel isolated or bitter.

The challenges facing students who live in poverty are deep. Peer pressure adds to the stress, especially for middle and high school students. Concerns like these are just one issue The Ledger is exploring in its five-part series “Poverty’s Widening Grasp.”

“We help kids realize they’re not alone,” Pickett said. “You have to help them realize: You’re here today, but you don’t have to stay here.”

In 2013-14, 3,793 students in Polk were identified as homeless, defined by the federal government as lacking a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. Dee Dee Wright, the School District’s homeless liaison, said she expects that number to be down by about 300 for 2014-15, but she worries some students may have slipped through the cracks because of employee turnover.

Many schools, including Mulberry Middle, offer a variety of ways to help students in need:

  • Many offer meal programs to reduce hunger.
  • Some schools use Title I funding to pay for extra reading and math coaches and for programs such as summer school.
  • Some have mentoring programs for personal support.
  • Schools encourage students to find role models through different avenues, including after-school programs and activities. That can be difficult for students if they have no transportation, but if they want to participate, the school tries to find a way to accommodate them.
  • Schools also help students afford field trips.

Pickett said she thinks building positive relationships is the greatest need for students in poverty, after food.

“We need to help feed them, but we also need to teach them how to feed themselves – as well as others,” she said.

Together, such programs help reinforce learning and give students a chance to experience new things.

“Part of the learning gap is because kids who aren’t in poverty have more experiences,” said Jacque Bowen, chief academic officer. “You depend on background knowledge not just from what you learn in school, but also from what you experience in life.”

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Title I funds also are used for things such as paying ACT/SAT test fees for students who can’t afford them and to provide free mobile libraries for kids.

Other fundamental needs cause challenges, too.

“Looking at poverty from one angle is tough. It’s like looking at an elephant up close. You might see the trunk or the tail, but it’s not really the whole elephant,” said Steve Turbeville, director of Lighthouse Ministries. “You can’t tell these stories enough because every story is unique.”

At Lighthouse Community Preschool, staff members have seen children come in who haven’t been taught basic skills, such as using the bathroom or washing their hands. Some have never heard a full conversation.

Fabianne Dilbeck, director of the preschool, said Lighthouse focuses on the emotional and social skills of children. But those who don’t get similar interventions might start school lacking some of those skills as well as behavioral ones.

“The question is as basic as, ‘Are we going to have food tonight?’ That causes children to fret and to have anxiety and to learn survival skills that are not necessarily good social skills,” Turbeville said. “They have a lot of fears that will break your heart.”

Dee Flowers, a case manager, says many poor or homeless families move often, causing the children to have to switch schools and leave friends behind. The School District’s Hearth Project helps by providing transportation for homeless students so they can remain at the same school no matter where they are staying.

Britney Russell, who is living at Lighthouse, said it was important to her to keep her daughter, Kyleigh Myers, at the same school after she moved. But the mother of four said she often stressed over finding gas money to drive to the school on top of having to pay for food and the electric bill.

“It makes you scared at all times,” she said. “You don’t want to fail your kids.”

Kyleigh, 10, said she likes her teachers, principal and the other students at the school. Despite the family’s past struggles, she is optimistic and happy.

“It didn’t really affect me,” she said. “I just tried to help (mom) with the other kids.”

The mobility rate of Polk’s poverty-stricken and homeless families is one of the biggest concerns for Hearth Project homeless liaison Dee Dee Wright. Switching schools can push a student back academically. And it’s even harder for parents to find time to help their children with school when they are concerned about having somewhere to sleep that night.

“I know that plays a big part in their academic challenges,” Wright said. “The No. 1 thing they need is a stable residence, but that’s the hardest thing to get.”

Affordable housing is not something the School District can help with, but staff members do try to connect families in need with resources, including shelters such as Lighthouse.

Brie Cameron, of Lighthouse’s community outreach program, said she knows a family whose kids don’t even go to school because they move around so much.

Those who do go to school risk being bullied by others who notice they don’t have good clothes.

Jenni Wilson, who taught music for 23 years at Inwood Elementary in Winter Haven, said she knew parents who would hand-wash the one uniform they had for their child every night – and others who would send their child to school in unwashed clothes that had been soiled by pets.

How parents deal with poverty can be important to the development of their children.

“They are seeing a model, and I think that’s one of the most powerful parts of this whole thing,” Wilson said. “Kids need to get another message from others – that there’s another way, a better way.”

Wilson now volunteers her time to work with women in jail, where she tries to help them develop an exit plan from poverty.

That’s not something she could teach in her elementary classroom, but she did her best to teach all her students not to take things for granted. And she would try to instill little lessons in them. For example, she encouraged her students to earn the $7 they needed to buy a recorder by doing chores at home or for neighbors, rather than just asking their parents for the money.

The School District tries to fill the physical needs of students to make it easier for them to concentrate on school and their futures.

The Hearth Project supports homeless students. In addition to helping connect families with outside resources, it offers help by supplying hygiene products, school uniforms, grocery gift cards, transportation assistance, tutoring at shelters, funding for school activities and school supplies.

“Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference for families and for kids,” Wright said.

In the hygiene bags, students get shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, washcloths, and a brush or comb.

Wright has never forgotten the moment three years ago when a young boy, digging through his hygiene bag, suddenly exclaimed, “My very own toothbrush!”

Toothbrushes are not very expensive – but first the parent has to be able to get to a store, and then they have to decide whether to use that dollar for a toothbrush or for food or some other necessity.

“What do you think that choice is going to be?” Wright said.