Teachers and staff at Pickerington High School North last week took part in a professional development workshop designed to increase understanding about students living in poverty, which school officials say is a growing issue in suburban districts.

Teachers and staff at Pickerington High School North last week took part in a professional development workshop designed to increase understanding about students living in poverty, which school officials say is a growing issue in suburban districts.

On Aug. 15, one day before the start of the school year in the Pickerington Local School District, the field house at PHS North was buzzing with chatter, arguments and the occasional scream.

It wasn't a student orientation, disciplinary program or athletic practice.

Rather, North teachers and staff were learning to become more aware and sensitive to issues students and parents experience because of a shortage of money in their households and the strains that can put on the delivery of education.

"It's community education about suburban poverty," said Kim Emch, executive director and founder of Hilliard-based Serving Our Neighbors Ministries, which led the professional development.

"It's teaching educators that poverty exists and debunking myths, but letting them have an experience of what it feels like to be in poverty," Emch said.

According to the ministry, one in six Ohioans -- nearly 2 million people -- live below the federal poverty level, and Ohio's statewide poverty rate of 16.4 percent exceeds the nationwide rate of 15.9 percent.

North Assistant Principal Monique Cobbs said one in four Pickerington students meet federal standards to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Cobbs said it is important for the school's teachers and staff to understand issues surrounding poverty because they impact families and can create roadblocks to learning and student and community success.

"Our theme this year at North is 'Breaking Down Barriers and Building Bridges,' " Cobbs said.

"It's important for us to understand that our kids come in with these stresses."

North teachers and staff went through a series of scenarios during the professional development session. Some played the part of students and parents whose households were struggling to make ends meet.

They had to reach out to others acting as service agents who had to determine how much -- if any -- public assistance could be doled out.

In one scenario, a teacher took on the role of a high school student whose mother was "out of the picture," and whose father was incarcerated.

The teacher/student was forced to ask for financial help from a public agency because, in addition to her parents' absences, her brother was enrolled in college classes and she and her two other siblings couldn't afford to pay their bills.

She was offered $50 in public assistance, and was turned away despite stating her bills were $250.

Emch pointed to a February 2014 Columbus Dispatch report that stated the percentage of subsidized lunches in Ohio schools hadn't fluctuated very much in the previous four years, indicating poverty persists in the Buckeye State.

She also cited an Ohio Department of Education statistic that 80,000 children, or 44 percent of students, are enrolled this school year in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

"The more (educators) can understand what these families are going through, the better then can serve them and help those kids get out of poverty," Emch said.

The Hilliard City School District is another that's seeing issues of poverty and trying to address them, said Stacie Raterman, Hilliard's communications director.

Raterman said a little less than 25 percent of Hilliard students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

She said all new teachers this summer were required to go through training to better understand poverty issues.

Additionally, Raterman said, for several years the district has offered poverty-related training as a professional development option throughout the school year.

"I would hope districts are paying more attention to it as their numbers go up," Raterman said.

"We think it's so important that our teachers are able to connect with our students on a personal level.

"It's vitally important that our teachers can understand what's going on in (students') worlds when they're outside school so they can help them while they are here," she said.

Pickerington's Public Relations Director David Ball said he suspects even more than 25 percent of local students are eligible for lunch assistance but don't apply for "a variety of reasons."

He said the Aug. 15 training was a continuation of work the district has done in recent years to better equip teachers to understand and respond to students and families when struggles at home don't end when classes begin.

Ball said teachers at Tussing and Violet elementary schools recently completed "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" program based on a book written by educator Dr. Ruby K. Payne.

"By helping staff better understand the daily difficulties individuals living in poverty experience, we as a district are better able to meet the individual needs of these students," Ball said.

"A role-playing experience like the one held at North (Aug. 15) builds understanding through empathy.

"Staff members were shown -- albeit in a micro-environment -- how challenging and frustrating it can be to have limited income, no transportation, limited education and other factors tied to poverty while trying to navigate the bureaucracy and obstacles of daily life."

Through the training and past and emerging programs, Ball said the district hopes to "improve the education and lives of individuals living in poverty around the world, with a focus on solutions and shared responsibilities."

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