A mile in their shoes: CCPS faculty, staff participate in ‘poverty simulator’ to gain better understanding of students in need

Two Cullman City Primary School poverty simulator participants learn the harsh reality of how some people have to pay their bills. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Cullman City Primary School (CCPS) faculty and staff spent their Presidents Day holiday at school, learning about the predicaments of Cullman’s low-income families and their children who attend Cullman-area schools. Taking part in a “poverty simulator,” they formed families and had to figure out how to live through the course of a month while working, paying bills that might represent more money than they had, keeping kids fed and in school and finding resources for the needs that they could not meet themselves.

Representatives of local agencies, businesses and churches played the roles of employers, bankers, grocers, payday loan and pawn brokers, social workers, school administrators, health care providers, bill collectors and law enforcement officers (Yes, police! If your young child stayed home alone while you went to work, even on a school holiday, you would be arrested.)

In materials provided to The Tribune, the Missouri Association for Community Action (MACA), which offers the program, said, “The Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) was developed to help raise awareness about different aspects of poverty that can lead to discussion about the potential for change in local communities,” and offered this description of the simulator:

“During a simulation, participants role-play the lives of low-income families, from single parents trying to care for their children to senior citizens trying to maintain their self-sufficiency on Social Security. The task of each family is to provide food, shelter and other basic necessities during the simulation while interacting with various community resources staffed by low-income volunteers.

“Although it uses ‘play’ money and other props, fictional scenarios, and time limits, CAPS is not a game. It is a simulation tool that enables participants to view poverty from different angles in an experiential setting, while empowering low-income volunteers by allowing them an opportunity to interact with leaders from their community.”

CCPS Principal/Head Start Director Tricia Culpepper told The Tribune, “The goal is for our teachers and our staff to have an awareness of what it looks like for some of our families that are going through-that live in-poverty. Right now, we have 43% of our students who are on free and reduced lunches, and we also have our Head Start program, which serves families in need. We have 94 students in our Head Start program that serves our 3- and 4-year-olds.”

CCPS personnel, from office staff to teachers and even custodians, took part in the simulator, as Culpepper explained, “It’s (for) our entire staff, to create more of an awareness of how hard it is and can be to do the things that you do in a period of a week, to take kids to school, to pay your bills, to get food on the table, to get appropriate health care for our families.”

Monday’s simulation facilitator, Phyllis Wyne, told The Tribune, “We’re trying to make sure that all of our schools and school boards and personnel, anybody who works with children, understand all the things that low-income people go through, so that we can serve them better. It’s very, very good for teachers, because it makes them recognize things, signs from what they see in the classroom, and then then they’ll know little Johnny is acting up probably because something happened at home. We’re hoping that, by doing this, we’ll be able to lift our grades all the way across the system.”

Reflecting on previous events like this, Wyne shared, “After this, everyone is just so amazed at what they’ve gotten from it. We have, in the debrief-after this, we’ll debrief, we’ve had people crying and people working together to see what they can do within their school, and that’s why it’s good to have a whole school do it, because everybody can be on the same page.”

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The “community action agency,” staffed by former Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Nancy Horton and United Way of Cullman County Executive Director Becky Goff, gets a visit from a participant seeking help. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

W.C. Mann