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April 11, 2021

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Voice of experience opens eyes on poverty

Ex-migrant worker trains Evergreen staff

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:
2 Photos
Donna Beegle is training staff in Evergreen Public Schools to find new ways to reach students living in poverty.
Donna Beegle is training staff in Evergreen Public Schools to find new ways to reach students living in poverty. Beegle spent her childhood as a migrant worker. Photo Gallery

For More Information

Learn more about Donna Beegle’s work at Communication Across Barriers: www.combarriers.com

What Is Considered Poverty?

Definition of poverty for a family of four:

o 2015 federal poverty level: $24,250 annual income.

o To qualify for 2014-2015 reduced-price school lunch: $44,123 annual income.

o To qualify for 2014-2015 free school lunch: $31,005 annual income.

See Our Chart, Map

For a chart listing the lowest- and highest-income schools in Clark County, hover your mouse over the photo above the story and click on the directional arrow to move the photo slider.

For an interactive map and more, scroll to the bottom of the story.

Related Coverage

See the first story in the two-part series, from Sunday:

Schools take on poverty

Donna Beegle spent her childhood as a migrant worker picking fruit alongside her parents and five brothers in fields from Central Washington to Arizona. She dropped out of school at 15.

From that place of need and uncertainty, Beegle got an education, pulled herself up from the abyss of poverty and for the past 25 years has taught people how to better understand people living in poverty and how to provide programs to help impoverished people out of that same abyss.

Evergreen Public Schools, the largest school district in Clark County, has hired Beegle as a consultant to train teachers and staff to find better ways to work with low-income students to improve graduation rates, school attendance and ultimately, the students’ futures.

For More Information

Learn more about Donna Beegle's work at Communication Across Barriers: <a href="http://www.combarriers.com">www.combarriers.com</a>

John Deeder, Evergreen superintendent, said his district began honing in on how to increase graduation rates and prevent students from dropping out of school.

“It became apparent that the kids who were dropping out and weren’t making it were living in poverty,” Deeder said. “Kids who for whatever reasons are struggling with the socioeconomics of their life. There’s a divide between the middle class and the poverty class,” Deeder said. “They don’t understand each other.”

Beegle is stepping in to bridge that gap.

Humble beginnings

Although Beegle’s family worked hard in the fields, there was never enough money. Beegle saw her mother skip meals to ensure her six children had something to eat.

They moved often and lived in berry cabins, the woods, behind truck stops and in cars. Beegle’s favorite place to sleep in the car was on the ledge between the backseat and the rear window.

“There I had no one’s feet in my face,” Beegle recalled. “And I could look up and see the stars.”

What Is Considered Poverty?

Definition of poverty for a family of four:

o 2015 federal poverty level: $24,250 annual income.

o To qualify for 2014-2015 reduced-price school lunch: $44,123 annual income.

o To qualify for 2014-2015 free school lunch: $31,005 annual income.

That girl born into generational poverty of migrant laborers learned early not to trust people.

“I grew up believing no one cared,” she said.

Her middle-class teachers and principals had no understanding of the reality of Beegle’s life. They had safe, warm houses with indoor plumbing and plenty of food. They knew where they would sleep every night. Their electricity was not in danger of being cut off. They had clean clothes. Even beds.

They didn’t awake in the night to find a rat crawling over them. They didn’t bathe in the river or sleep in a car. They didn’t share a one-bedroom house with 21 people.

In contrast to the middle-class life of her teachers, Beegle’s family was in constant crisis. Being on time for school and doing homework was not a high priority when she was living on the edge.

“We keep asking people in crisis to act as if they’re middle class,” Beegle said. “But how many people are on time when they’re in crisis?”

See Our Chart, Map

For a chart listing the lowest- and highest-income schools in Clark County, hover your mouse over the photo above the story and click on the directional arrow to move the photo slider.

For an interactive map and more, scroll to the bottom of the story.

Most of Beegle’s family is illiterate. She’s the only person in her family who hasn’t been incarcerated. She didn’t consider college. She didn’t know anyone with a career.

By 15, she had dropped out of school and was married to another migrant worker. At age 25, she was living in Portland when her husband left. She had two young children and no education or job prospects.

Her electricity was shut off and she was being evicted when she turned to the nonprofit organization Community Action to get her electricity restored. In addition to paying her electric bill, they told her about a pilot program that could help her get an education and eventually, a family-wage job. It even provided a housing voucher.

That leg up was what Beegle needed to provide for her family and to ensure a better future for all of them.

She earned her GED, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and eventually a doctoral degree. Along the way, she met people who were outside of the scope of impoverished people, the only kind of people she’d ever known. She also met other people who had lived in poverty, but their experience was different than hers.

Related Coverage

See the first story in the two-part series, from Sunday:

Schools take on poverty

Beegle encourages people to not lump all poverty into one definition. She teaches about four distinct kinds of poverty.

• Generational poverty: Both Beegle’s mother and grandmother were cotton pickers. Those living in generational poverty are in survival mode, she said. Her family was evicted multiple times and often were unsure what they would eat or where they would sleep.

• Working-class-poverty: The parents may be working multiple minimum-wage jobs, but it’s a struggle to stretch the dollars.

• Immigrant poverty: In addition to struggling with shelter, hunger and keeping the lights on, immigrants living in poverty also must overcome language and cultural barriers, Beegle said.

• Situational poverty: Since the recession, situational poverty has increased the most, Beegle said. People have fallen into poverty through being laid off, losing their home or getting a divorce. Those students and families will be in a different place than someone whose family has lived in poverty for generations, Beegle said.

In her studies, Beegle focused on educating people about poverty and finding ways to help others climb out of it. She’s made it her life’s work to help others understand poverty and rather than judging, providing tools to people living in poverty.

A lot of what educators can do to make a difference in the lives of students doesn’t require a budget increase. But it does require an attitude adjustment, Beegle said. It takes looking at school policies in a new way to determine whether they serve students in crisis. One school that Beegle worked with changed their tardy slips to “I’m so glad you’re here” slips.

Beegle’s work with Evergreen Public Schools includes training Deeder, other administrators, board members, teachers and classified staff members such as bus drivers, maintenance workers and cafeteria workers who have daily contact with students. Eventually, each of the district’s schools will have a team of six staff members who will serve as poverty coaches to lead poverty competency workshops and to consider how programs and decisions affect students living in poverty, Beegle said.

Teachers and administrators can’t fight the complexities of poverty alone, Beegle said. Already through the Family and Community Resource Centers, the district has taken the next step: partnering with social service, social justice and faith-based communities to alleviate burdens in their students’ lives.

“They need community support to make sure kids have a place to lay their head at night and food to eat,” she said. “When we work together, we see systemic change,” Beegle said. “I’m excited about Evergreen schools and the level of systemic change that’s going to happen there.”

Turning it around

Beegle is proof that the effects of education trickle down in a family living in poverty. Although Beegle and her five brothers dropped out of school, she has cousins who are earning college degrees. A niece told her she hopes to become a paleontologist.

“Growing up in poverty, that word wasn’t in my vocabulary or experience,” she said.

That little girl who slept in a car and peered up at the stars through the rear window has worked to share that vision of hope with other kids who are looking up.

“I can lead people to a place where they see the poverty and stand in awe of the kids living in poverty. It’s really a privilege to do this,” Beegle said.

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