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Des Moines Register (Iowa)

Poverty Simulation Program in West Des Moines Helps Teachers

Dave Dolmage

Andréa Boyd, principal at Phenix Elementary in West Des Moines, facilitates the Community Action Poverty Simulation. “CAPS is a tool to help people understand the realities of poverty,” she says. (Holly McQueen/the Register)

As the economy continues to weaken, teachers must do what they can to help children whose families are struggling, said West Des Moines school administrators and teachers who attended a poverty seminar on Monday.

Andréa Boyd, the principal at Phenix Elementary School in West Des Moines, is no stranger to poverty. Located in the Valley Junction area of West Des Moines, more than half the students at Phenix qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

After going through a training course, Boyd wanted to bring the poverty simulation program to her school to help teachers and other administrators understand how poverty affects students, and how teachers can minimize its effects.

"We do it for people to have awareness, but with the economy everyone is aware," Boyd said. "It's a call to action, to see what we can do to help students and families."

Boyd works with Mary Stilwell, the family services coordinator at Phenix, to ensure that the district is doing what it can to help meet the needs of students. Stilwell works to find donations of clothing, and even helps some families find apartments. Boyd said it's easier for family members to talk to Stilwell, rather than speaking to the principal.

"She fulfills a very valuable role, and I think sometimes it's easier for families to go and talk to her," Boyd said of Stilwell.


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About to graduate from Iowa State University, Whitney Wilson of West Des Moines is a student teacher who attended the poverty seminar. "It really opened my eyes and helped me see things that I might not have otherwise noticed," Wilson said.

For Wilson, it's important for teachers to build a trusting relationship with students, and she feels that with the weakening economy it will become more important to help children in poverty. "It's important that we, as teachers, make a connection with the students," Wilson said.

Lisa Remy, West Des Moines schools associate superintendent of human resources, agreed. She was glad to see Boyd bring the poverty simulation to West Des Moines, and she said the district plans to have all of its teachers go through the training.

"Having a better understanding of the kids in your classroom will help you meet their needs, no matter what those needs are," Remy said.

Volunteers Sheena Larson and Eric Melchert spoke to the group, as well. The south-side residents have had firsthand experience with poverty and they urged teachers to pay attention to the little things. Larson pointed out to teachers that some students may not be able to afford their own school supplies, or pay for a field trip. "I got a lot of guff from teachers and other kids because I didn't have all of my school supplies," remembered Larson.


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