Warren: An Unlikely Window on the Economy

Mon, 12-05-2011
By: James Warren

Last week, a mother asked her daughter, a senior at Niles West High School, what she wanted for her 18th birthday. The daughter said she only wanted her mom to be there.

“We don’t have much money, eat at home and don’t really go out,” said the girl, who baby-sits to help defray expenses like playing club soccer. “She’s not working and has raised six of us by herself.”

Sitting in a school conference room, the teenager exhibited a calm resignation and no rancor. It was the same with five other students, all of whom offered a primer on the economy’s impact with remarkable, if possibly illusory, equanimity.

The plight of homeless children is drawing news media attention. The reality for many adolescents at Niles West in Skokie — a good and big suburban school — is less dramatic. But the wounds are there, even if they are not fully understood by youngsters whose craving for normalcy is upended by economics.

Kaine Osburn, the principal, sat with me, and I agreed not to use the students’ names, given their candid descriptions of their family lives.

But the themes weren’t new to him; he routinely elicits a similar response upon asking students how school is going.

“I have to work,” they say, to make ends meet.

A sophomore spoke of her younger brother’s being stressed out by their family’s declining financial situation.

A senior discussed a friend’s dad’s losing his job and the mother’s confronting breast cancer.

Another senior quietly fretted over her father, a construction worker, not knowing when the next paycheck would come.

Several were of East Asian background, which is no surprise since Niles West exemplifies the nation’s growing racial diversity attributable to unprecedented increases in minority children and declines in non-Hispanic white ones. Children’s diversity is growing more in suburban and small metropolitan areas than in larger urban cores or rural areas, according to census data.

Despite the caricature of a Skokie that is largely white and Jewish, more than 40 percent of the population of Niles Township School District 219 is foreign-born. It serves most of Skokie, all of Lincolnwood and slices of Morton Grove and Niles, with about 80 languages and dialects spoken. The most common after English are Spanish, Urdu, Assyrian, Filipino, Korean and Gujarati.

In three years, the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches has more than doubled, to 724 from 309 students, or 28 percent of 2,600 students. Niles West’s vigilant support systems work overtime, as recounted by Osburn; Jayson Ness, an assistant principal; and Stephanie Hentz, a school social worker.

Three-member teams of psychologists, counselors and social workers meet individual students far more often, especially as social service agencies are burdened by budget cuts and long waiting lists.

The link between stress and both physical and emotional health is abundantly clear, though it inspires a certain community cohesion and resourcefulness. Teachers chip in to buy winter clothes and backpacks for some students, and their union coordinates food drives.

The well-focused teams see many students whose families have moved in with relatives or live in foreclosed homes without heat.

Families who donated to pantries two years ago are now pantry clients. Just coming to school, and getting a hot meal, can be the calm from a household storm, even for students too fatigued by a job to complete homework.

While Hentz walked down a school hallway to our meeting Tuesday, she was approached by a girl who asked, “Can you help me?”

The girl is a good student, but she struggles to balance a job with schoolwork.

Waivers and a school-related foundation help those who can no longer afford the $450 student fee for a family’s first child in the district (it’s $300 for siblings), which covers courses, books, an inexpensive laptop and most activities.

It’s the same for the $87 to take an advanced placement exam, the $28 for ACT prep classes and college application fees.

As I left the school, I kept thinking of that soccer player who was turning 18. She knew of the counseling available at the school, but she shrugged it off.

“Especially with all the technology today, there’s a faux maturity with many,” said Mary Rose, a family therapist at Metropolitan Family Services in Skokie. “But it’s still an adolescent brain, and circumstances may be beyond their real comprehension.”

Indeed, the hidden injuries of youth may prove lasting.