What’s it like for students in poverty? Teen describes voices ‘telling you to quit’ – The Arizona Republic

Opinion: In 2019, my family lost our home and had to move into a hotel room. If not for a government safety net, I wouldn’t have made it to graduation.

Rhonda Cagle  |  opinion contributor

If you want facts and stats about poverty’s impacts on Arizona’s high school students, consult Google. What you need instead is the voice of a recent high school graduate I’ll call “Annabelle.” 

Please listen to her closely and carefully. In her voice, you’ll hear the echo of more than 300,000 other voices of Arizona students living in poverty.

School is hard. Poverty makes it harder

School is a hard thing for many students, but how hard is it for students in poverty? I can’t answer that question for every impoverished student, but I can tell you my experience of how poverty has affected me, my education and my family. 

Money has always been a problem for my family. We’ve never had enough to buy the things we need. But it wasn’t until the last couple of years that money became a huge problem.

Home was a one-room hotel

In August 2019, my family and I lost our home and had to move into a hotel. Then the pandemic hit and made things worse. It became harder to get into housing. During my senior year, I was stuck in a single room hotel with my parents and brother. Luckily, we were able to afford a room; I don’t know what would have happened if we couldn’t.

One of the only reasons we can afford food is because of the food stamps we get monthly. Good thing, because groceries are expensive; same as before the pandemic. 

Medical care is one of the few things I don’t have to worry about, thankfully. My mom is legally disabled and gets free medical care, which extends to the rest of my family. It’s a good thing, because the summer before my senior year I had an allergic reaction and went into anaphylactic shock. Because of the free medical care my mom gets, we were able to afford the trip to the emergency room, my medicine and EpiPen. 

Virtual learning from a broken cellphone

Access to technology is another thing that can be hard. In the beginning of high school, I had a phone made in 2016. As this past year went by, the phone started messing up, taking forever to load. Having a phone that is slow doesn’t do well for online classes.

If my school didn’t offer laptops to students who needed them, I wouldn’t have been able to take my classes. My family couldn’t afford to buy me a new phone or a laptop for class.

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My mental health was affected by growing up in poverty, having to constantly worry about money and whether or not you’ll have a roof over your head at night. The stress piles on as you lose your mind to your inner demons questioning you about why you continue to fight even when you feel like it’s pointless.

That’s the biggest thing about poverty; the voices in your head telling you to quit.

Whose voice will we choose to hear?

As if Annabelle’s own voices aren’t bad enough, she’s fighting the voices of lawmakers who have decided she and other poor students are an expense rather than an investment. She’s fighting data from experts that show students of poverty being five times more likely to drop out of high school.

We can continue debating the stats, or we can listen to voices like Annabelle’s.

We, the people – the voters – can lend our voices to theirs, speaking loudly to lawmakers so they clearly hear we won’t quit on the Annabelles among us. We can begin advocating for Arizona to join other states in implementing a funding model that designates new and specific funding for students of poverty.

The question is this: Whose voice will we listen to – the lawmakers who say it can’t be done, or the voice of Annabelle, whose story tells us we must find a way?

Rhonda Cagle is founder of Leverage Consulting Agency, serving educational and non-profit organizations. She is a member of the board of contributors for The Arizona Republic. On Twitter: @RhondaCagle1.

About the series

In this series, contributor Rhonda Cagle examines what it takes to educate more than 300,000 Arizona children living in poverty.

May: Let’s talk – really talk – about student poverty

June: Poverty sets kids behind before they even enter kindergarten

July: Many K-8 schools aren’t equipped to teach kids in poverty

Today: What it’s like to be poor, from a high schooler’s eyes

September: Other states offer a road map for Arizona