On Fridays, Principal Jeanna Chandler’s staff at Wellborn Elementary School hauls out the Rubbermaid totes. Usually there are two, one reserved for car-riding students, another for those who take the bus.
Stuffed inside are bags of food, sometimes as many as a hundred sacks of simple stuff, easily made by young hands. Cans of soup. Jell-O. Cans of spaghetti and meatballs.
“We’ll have food for them to have over the weekend, things they can prepare themselves,” Chandler said.
The weekend backpacks at Anniston’s Randolph Park Elementary School are filled with similar fare — boxes of Pop-Tarts, cans of Vienna sausages, containers of mac-and-cheese and soups.
One hundred and five of Randolph Park’s 321 students get backpacks each Friday. When Thanksgiving break arrives next week, they’ll get two backpacks of food. Over the Christmas holiday, they’ll get even more.
“I don’t think the city recognizes what we are dealing with,” Principal Teresia Hall said. “I don’t think they understand [that student hunger] is a problem in our area.”
I’m as guilty as anyone of lazy thinking about poverty — that it’s mainly a homeless issue, or only in certain parts of the city, or that white Annistonians aren’t often affected. But shame on me, because that’s not the case.
Nearly a third of Anniston residents (29.5 percent) live below the federal poverty line, the U.S. Census Bureau says. And an astonishing number of students in Anniston-area schools are considered “economically disadvantaged” by the Alabama Department of Education — a bureaucratic euphemism for a nimbler definition.
Wellborn Elementary and Randolph Park aren’t our only schools with student bodies who are overwhelmingly poor. But they illustrate how pervasive poverty is in Calhoun County, regardless of race, ward or city limit.
Randolph Park’s student population was overwhelmingly black (97.2 percent) in the 2018-19 school year, according to the most recent state DOE data. Wellborn Elementary’s student population was overwhelmingly white, 85.6 percent. And four-fifths of each school’s students were poor — 80.22 percent for Wellborn Elementary, 80.33 percent for Randolph Park.
Anniston City Schools’ systemwide measure of poor students was nearly 72 percent, but poverty doesn’t adhere to city boundaries. All of Calhoun County Schools’ campuses in Wellborn had high rates of “economically disadvantaged” students. Saks Elementary’s percentage of poor students — 85.44 — soared above Wellborn Elementary’s and Randolph Park’s. Nearly 60 percent of Ohatchee Elementary’s students last year were poor.
There are others, still.
Neither Oxford High nor Jacksonville High topped 50 percent. Only 33.72 percent of students at White Plains High were poor. Plotted on a map, our schools mimic the pockets of our low-income neighborhoods. But the difference is that instead of measuring poverty by property values and median household incomes, it’s marked by children sent home from school with cans of soup and Pop-Tarts so they won’t go hungry over the weekend.
And it’s not just food. “As principal here [at Wellborn Elementary],” Chandler said, “our goal is to take out the barriers that keep kids from learning.” Then she lists a few barriers.
If students are cold in the winter, her staff gets them coats. If they need shoes, Chandler’s team finds them a pair. If their glasses are broken — or if they don’t have any — teachers find a solution for that, too. Some of her students’ families may not have hot water at home for showers or power for heat. Outside help from churches and community agencies, from Family Links, from Center of Hope, from churches, is a godsend.
There’s a truth over at Randolph Park. “Everybody can’t do this job,” Hall said. She’s taught in the district for 19 years. “This is a hard job. You have to have a heart that you know what [the students] are going through. You have to break through that barrier. They may be in poverty, there may be a single parent, there may be a grandparent raising that child, but we have to teach them.”
At Wellborn Elementary, “the ones that are here, they know the challenges of teaching at a high-poverty school,” Chandler said. “They have to want to be here. It is not an easy job.”
None of these comparisons indict anyone. Blame isn’t the point. If anything, they’re a fascinating look at the roles educators play in the lives of Calhoun County’s low-income students, roles that go far beyond lesson plans and test scores. It’s inspiring.
Grateful we should be for the mobilized army of volunteers and agencies already helping these students. They’re godsends, remember. But if you ever doubt how deep poverty’s roots have grown in Calhoun County, visit these schools. See the totes and backpacks of food. There’s your proof.