An Unlevel Playing Field: The Reality of Poverty for Rural Students

An Unlevel Playing Field:
The Reality of Poverty for Rural Students

With a nearly 20% poverty rate among Arizona children, families often rely on their local public school in ways beyond providing a quality education. As a result, teachers must ensure basic needs such as nutrition and safety are met before focusing on academics. This piece focuses on students in poverty. Read our 8-part series to learn how teachers are managing as first responders to child poverty and why increased education funding is necessary to meet this crisis. Read our last piece titled Urgent Needs of Preschoolers in Poverty.

Mary Perez
National Board Certified Teacher
High School English
Sierra Vista, AZ
Mary Perez - The Reality for Rural Students in Poverty

When I got my first teaching job in Southern Arizona, I was confident in my ability to work with children in poverty having been trained on teaching in the inner city. But I was wrong. Rural poverty looks nothing like urban poverty, and the experiences of children in our rural communities are often invisible to policymakers.

"When I got my first teaching job in Southern Arizona, I was confident in my ability to work with children in poverty having been trained on teaching in the inner city. But I was wrong. Rural poverty looks nothing like urban poverty, and the experiences of children in our rural communities are often invisible to policymakers."

Arizona Students Living in Rural Poverty

Rural poverty is Genevieve, whose family of 8 lived in a trailer park that abutted a portable toilet company, rows of toilets encased in blue boxes, that stretched from her front door into the desert. Genevieve didn’t have a washing machine, so each week, she quietly passed me a bag of laundry which I made sure was clean each week. 

Rural poverty means long, hot summers in trailers, with nothing to do except stare at a screen. In rural areas there are no malls or libraries, and no refuge beyond a long dusty walk. Kelly wrote an essay about drunk mothers forgetting to buy cereal, and the long walks she took on hot, dusty roads in an Arizona summer to buy a few groceries for siblings

Poverty: An Unlevel Playing Field: The Reality of Poverty for Rural Students; Group of children sitting at a school lunch table eating.

The Effects of Poverty on Grocery Shopping

Rural poverty is grocery shopping at Circle K where fresh fruit, with its colors and textures is unheard of. It is a field trip that ended at a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Tucson, and watching bewildered high school students see leafy green vegetables and colorful crunchy squares for the first time. It is girls telling me they have never eaten a fresh peach when I brought a bag from a neighbor’s tree. 

"Rural poverty... is a field trip that ended at a Sweet Tomatoes restaurant in Tucson, and watching bewildered high school students see leafy green vegetables and colorful crunchy squares for the first time. It is girls telling me they have never eaten a fresh peach when I brought a bag from a neighbor’s tree."

Rural poverty is Santiago, who after being placed in his eighth foster home, came to my 9th grade English class.  He surreptitiously eyed a tangerine leftover from my lunch on my desk and asked if he could have it. I agreed, and weeks after struggling to manage Santiago’s oftentimes violent outbursts, I had a realization!  Santiago spent the rest of that school year working in my English class for a piece of fresh fruit at the end of the hour — tangerines, apples, even peaches were our currency.  He worked hard, and I, in turn, provided him a piece of fruit each day. 

Public schools are the center of rural communities, and lawmakers need to fund our rural schools instead of eroding our center. 

These stories were collected by Save Our Schools Arizona and printed previously as part of a project series with AZ Central. All stories are true, but names of students have been changed to protect privacy.

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