At in Dearborn, Nadia Dakroub becomes pensive when she talks about the economic struggles many of the school’s parents are facing.
Dakroub, a parent liaison at Oakman, spends her days networking with school officials, teachers and parents to find resources for struggling Oakman students and their families. It is a nearly full-time effort–and unfortunately, there’s no shortage of clientele.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of students who need assistance,” said Dakroub. “There are several reasons for that–but the biggest factor is the economy.
“I don’t think we’re different than other east side schools,” she said. “We have a lot of students (whose families) are new to this country, and they’re more likely to work in minimum wage jobs, and in this economy, those are the first to go."
This winter, multiple efforts are under way in Dearborn Public Schools to provide necessities such as food and warm clothing to families. These efforts have become duty above and beyond the traditional role of schools.
And the need among families is escalating. In 2007, 9,000 of Dearborn’s roughly 18,500 students received a free and reduced lunch according to numbers provided by the district. By 2010, the number increased to 12,000.
For the 2011-12 school year, that number increased again to about 13,000 students.
Students at the Brink
The recession has taken its toll on area families. According to Starfish Family Services' 2011 Community Needs Assessment, Wayne County families have lost on average 27.2 percent of their income, with average annual pay dropping from $52,491 to $38,192. In Dearborn, 15 percent of families earn less than $20,000 annually, and 40 percent earn less than $45,000.
To meet the needs of students, Dearborn teachers and administrators have engaged in several activities meant to lessen the economy’s sting for students, and in the community as a whole.
Shannon Peterson, the principal at , said teachers pick up on cues when a student's family is having financial issues.
“I had a student that was repeating clothing too often, so I asked him if he wanted some new clothing I bought for one of my children,” she said. “He took the clothing, and he was so grateful."
Bryant is also having a food collection competition with to see which facility can collect the most cans of food. The food will be donated later this month to statewide assistance program Helping Hand for distribution. Peterson said many of the food items will assist families within the Bryant community.
”I asked a student if he wanted some clothing I bought for one of my children. He took the clothing, and he was so grateful."
At , Principal Fatme Faraj said families are also feeling a financial pinch, and that one of the most pressing issues for her students is obtaining adequate winter clothing.
“One of our teachers contacted a knitters group, and the women from the group donated hats and mittens to Maples children who are in need of those items,” she said. “We put up a giving tree in December and hang those items on it.”
At , where more than 90 percent of students receive a free or reduced lunch, food donations are key. A food drive is taking place this winter that will provide food to some families within the Becker community, and the rest will be donated.
“Things are really tough for parents right now,” Principal Nada Fouani said. “As educators, the well-being of children has to some first, and we do everything in our power to help them out.”
Back at Oakman, food isn’t so much of a problem as winter clothing is. A hat and mitten tree that is being set up at the school will take care of some of those needs, with the excess to be donated.
“When we saw that some students weren’t wearing a coat, or were wearing an inadequate coat, we sent a letter home asking parents to make sure their child wore a winter coat,” Dakroub said. “Then some came back without a coat, and that’s how we knew they didn’t have a coat.”
Dakroub compiled a list of the students, and she will herself go out and purchase coats using $300 in donated funds from the “I've Got Your Backs” Foundation, a charity which helps underprivileged kids.
The nonprofit was created after the untimely death of Isaac Loughrige, a young man from Marshall, MI, that enjoyed helping young people. Jeannine Oynoian, Loughrige’s aunt and a teacher at Oakman, made provisions for the donation.
"Our mission here is to help children be successful,” she said. “They can’t do that if they are cold.”
Beyond Traditional Roles
For schools, taking care of basic needs for some families is not a new prospect. But given the duration of this economic downturn, it’s become a much larger proposition that most educators envisioned.
Linda Waczyk, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Association of School Administrators, said schools are in need of partners to provide students assistance in a challenging economy.
"I truly believe that this is something that teachers have in their hearts to do for students,” she said. “But we can’t do it alone–we need community assistance to continue this kind of work.”
Still, it’s something school staff feel they need to do, said Peterson.
“It’s very tough times for many families," she said. "As teachers, we see this every day, and we want to do something about it."
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.