Battling poverty in the classroom |

Battling poverty in the classroom

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY ” Robert Cuevas , principal at Berry Creek Middle School, spends much of the school day hunting for jobs.

When students come to school tired, hungry, distracted and without their homework, it’s often because their parents lost their jobs, the bills are piling up and they’re facing eviction. So, like many administrators in the school district, Cuevas will spend the morning with a phone in his hand, calling friends and asking, “Do you have anything open?”

“I’ll find (the parents) jobs so they can make money, and so their kids can be fed, clothed and come to school prepared to learn,” Cuevas said.

Principals and school counselors in Eagle County, like Cuevas, are often doubling as social workers. Helping students overcome problems at home can take hours out of a day.

That’s why many believe the school district needs to hire a trained social worker to help lighten the load for all the schools. The school district is considering creating the position ” about $80,000 has been proposed for the next school year’s budget for the job, said Phil Onofrio, chief financial officer for the district.

“It’s hard for kids to learn when they’re dealing with so many social things at home, so we take that on as a school,” Cuevas said. “But it puts a lot of pressure on us as administrators. It would be good to have the flexibility to round that off. A social worker would make our team stronger.”

When principals have more time to do their job ” which, ideally, is to work with teachers and make classrooms better ” kids will benefit, said Doreen Somers, a parent and a member of the District Advisory Accountability Committee. The group, which interviewed every principal in the district, recently asked the school board to create a social worker position.

“One high-maintenance social issue can take up a good part of the day ” if they had a backup person who’s trained in social work to step in when needed, they would be freed up for what they were hired to do,” Somers said.

Poverty is at the root of many of these problems. One indicator is that there are around 1,700 students on free or reduced lunch this year in the district.

Many students deal with moving constantly during a year, from trailer home to trailer home, from apartment to apartment. Many students live in small homes crammed with multiple families, and without adequate heat, water and plumbing, says parent Bev Rasmussen, who also served on the accountability committee.

So, when students are struggling at home, it really shows in the classroom, Rasmussen said.

“Kids are just little reflections of their home life,” Rasmussen said. “In class they’ll write a story about not knowing where they’re going to live. You see it in the fact that when they aren’t doing their homework, it’s because they don’t have a place at home to do it because it’s so crowded.”

A social worker wouldn’t end the need for principals to spend time helping kids who are having trouble at home ” but it would help.

Social workers are trained, know contacts, know the right therapists and doctors, know who accepts Medicaid, and can more efficiently handle the tough problems, Somers said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or

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