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AWARE

Back-to-School

P.O. Box 86
Kingston, Ontario
K7L 4V6
telephone: (613)545-0117
fax: (613)545-1508
email: [email protected]

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Recommendations

On one hand, mothers want a system where they can access help for school costs in a confidential manner without talking to the principal or their child's teacher. On the other hand, they don't want anyone to make assumptions about their ability to pay for these costs..

Recommendations

Back-to-School Supplies

Low-income single mothers spend a substantial amount on expenses related to back-to-school supplies. Many schools require the purchase of agendas, indoor shoes, and other supplies considered essential. Financial assistance from Ontario Works is insufficient to cover all back-to-school costs. While community agencies and groups are trying to meet some of the needs, many moms are unaware of these programs. Others are embarrassed to access support and concerned that they (and more importantly, their children) will be stigmatized, especially when the supplies are distributed by the school rather than a community agency.

Recommendations:
  • Schools review the list of required back-to-school supplies to ensure only essentials are included.
  • Schools notify parents of these expenses before the new school year and allow parents to make these purchases over the first two months of school.
  • Schools consider finding a less expense alternative to formal agenda books, such as photocopied day timers.
  • Ontario Works increase the level of funding for back-to-school expenses by at least 20%.
  • Community agencies and groups interested in supporting parents with the purchase of back-to-school supplies consult with low-income parents to determine the best way to provide assistance in a manner that reduces embarrassment, maximizes confidentiality, and is non-stigmatizing to families and children.

Food

Food was the most reported area of concern by low-income single mothers. The cost and frequency of hot lunches are a financial burden for many low-income families. Healthy nutrition policies also create hardship for families who perceive the cost of healthy foods as prohibitive. As with other issues, children are often kept home by parents when they cannot meet the expectations of the school.

Recommendations:
  • Food prohibited under the health nutrition policy (with the exception of foods containing allergy inducing ingredients) should not be thrown away; rather, these foods should be returned home.
  • Schools provide breakfast/snack programs in a way that minimizes or reduces the stigma for children and mothers involved.
  • Information about low-cost healthy snack and lunch options is included in the school newsletter and other handouts regularly given to all parents, not only to low-income families.
  • Schools offer hot lunch programs no more than once a week, unless schools are willing to have a fund dedicated to provide to families who cannot afford the hot lunches.
  • Food should not be used as a reward in classrooms. In fact, it is against school policy to do so. All teachers should be made aware of this.
  • Educators are provided with information to increase their sensitivity to food issues.

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Field Trips

A number of concerns about field trips including cost, frequency, insufficient notice, and lack of relevance to the school curriculum were identified. Some mothers indicated they postpone paying bills in order to pay for field trips. Others report that their children, as a result of a keen awareness of their families' financial circumstances, tell their mothers that they are not interested in going on field trips. In most cases when the mother can't afford the field trip, the child stays at home. In some cases there is help from the school, if the family requests it.

Recommendations:
  • School boards establish field trip guidelines to ensure no child is left behind as a result of financial hardship.
  • School boards work with low-income parents to find innovative strategies to reduce parent's financial hardships created by field trips to include flat rate payment plans, full funding, and subsidies.

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Computers

Some teachers expect homework assignments and reports be computer-generated . While many families have computers in their homes, far fewer have Internet access. The costs associated with maintaining a computer are taxing for many families. Printer ink and monthly Internet service fees are costly. Many low-income families who have computers are unable maintain their upkeep. A seemingly logical solution offered by some teachers is the use of computers at public libraries. While this may be a viable option for older children or those who live within walking distance of a library, it is not this simple for many. In order for a single mother to accompany her child to the library, she may need to bring along other children, all of whom may need to take public transportation. This can be a costly and time-consuming prospect.

Recommendations:
  • Elementary school assignments should not require completion on computer unless dedicated in-class time is provided to complete the assignment on school computers.
  • Schools make computers available to students to complete computer generated assignments at alternative times which might include after school hours or at recess.
  • Schools donate unused computers to low-income families who couldn't otherwise afford them.

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Fundraising and Volunteering

Mothers were overwhelmed by the number of requests for money to support fundraisers. Most indicated they were unclear about how the school uses the proceeds of fundraising. Many mothers suggested that some of the money fundraised could help pay for school trips.

Many mothers reported feeling pressured by the school to participate in fundraising activities. Some schools reward students who are successful fundraisers, thus creating an environment in which the child pushes the parent to be involved - either purchasing and/or selling fundraising products. Many women reported a limited circle of friends and family who might be able to support fundraising efforts. Single mothers who do not work outside the home do not have a peer group or colleagues to approach for fundraising activities. Furthermore, most live in low-income neighbourhoods and they feel embarrassed asking other low-income parents for money to support school fundraising activities.

While some mothers indicated an interest in volunteering at the school there were no supports in place to cover any expenses incurred, such as childcare or transportation, which creates barriers to participation. Even when these barriers were not insurmountable, more subtle ones emerge; for example, one mother reported she volunteered for the school council to make changes but felt her voice was not heard.

Recommendations:
  • Schools create meaningful opportunities for volunteerism and share this information with all parents.
  • Schools cover all costs associated with volunteering including transportation, childcare, and costs associated with acquiring a criminal record check.
  • Schools cease to offer rewards to the student who sells the most fundraising items or raises the most money.
  • School councils offer childcare during council meetings, so that single parents can also be involved.
  • Schools should identify, through notices or newsletters, the specifics of how fundraising money is being used.

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Special Needs Children

Single mothers in receipt of Ontario Works benefits have many requirements placed on them to maintain their eligibility for assistance. These requirements can include participation in training programs and work placements. Single parents of special needs children are faced with unique challenges. If a child is sent home with behavioural problems, a mother may be unable to fulfill work or Ontario Works obligations. Women are often torn between caring for their child and fulfilling these requirements in order to keep their jobs or maintain their eligibility for assistance. Many mothers have left work or missed Ontario Works sanctioned activities in order to care for their special needs child when they were sent home from school.

Some mothers reported their children are waiting for assessments so they can have access to an educational assistant (EA) in the classroom and other supports. A delay in receiving this assessment can have many ramifications on students and their families. The student can be negatively impacted by safe schools policies. Students with behavioural problems (which have yet to be formally identified or diagnosed) may be sent home as a result of their actions rather than receive appropriate support. The longer the waiting period for the assessment the more likely the problem will grow.

Recommendations:
  • School Boards record and make public the number of students awaiting assessment.
  • School Boards take immediate measures to reduce the backlog of assessments.
  • Schools consider alternative measures to address the behavioural 'problems' of students awaiting assessments.
  • OW articulate a position that is supportive and reassuring to single mothers who face challenges meeting their OW requirements because they need to care for children with special needs.

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Asking for Help/Offering Help

Many low-income single mothers never approach the school to ask for help when they are unable to pay for a field trip or school activity. Many are embarrassed. Others fear they and their children will be stigmatized and that their request will not remain confidential. Many low-income single mothers seek financial support from family members, borrow from friends, delay paying bills, or fail to buy essentials such as food in order to pay for school trips and hot lunches. Some mothers reported reallocating the food budget to cover school expenses, necessitating increased use of Food Banks or simply doing without food. (Usually the mother sacrifices her own food needs for those of her children.) Of those who had approached the school, some mothers reported favourable support while others found it humiliating and stigmatizing. Many mothers indicated that they were further embarrassed by the need to repeatedly self-identify as low-income to teachers, principals, and others.

Some mothers reported their children felt uncomfortable with teachers' repeated requests for money owed for a trip or other school expenses. In other cases, when no means of support was found, the child was kept home from school.

Other mothers reported discomfort when the school made assumptions about their capacity to provide for their families. Many rural women reported a lack of confidentiality as a major concern when approaching the school for additional support. Women who perceived a lack of confidentiality felt that they needn't tell the school that they are unable to pay for some school activities as the school is already is aware of their financial situation.

On one hand, mothers want a system where they can access help for school costs in a confidential manner without talking to the principal or their child's teacher. On the other hand, they don't want anyone to make assumptions about their ability to pay for these costs.

Recommendations:
  • Each school establish a special fund to assist students whose parent(s) cannot afford field trips and other school activities to ensure no student is excluded due to financial hardship.
  • Schools communicate the existence of 'special funds' to parents in regular newsletters and on permission slips for field trips.
  • Schools appoint one or two people (preferably an administrator or guidance counsellor) to oversee all referrals to the special fund and communicate the referral process to parents by including the information in a newsletter to avoid stigmatizing low-income parents.
  • Schools support opportunities for school readiness programs for children from low-income families.

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