Volume 16 Issue 3
By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Members of this Anaheim family share one bedroom to save money. They are Manuel Rangel, Leticia Martinez, and children Brandon, 7, Hilary, 4, and Melanie, 1. Photo by Scott Buschman.
Manuel Rangel and Leticia Martinez live in the shadow of Disneyland, “the Happiest Place on Earth,” but their living conditions are anything but happy. The couple and their three children, ages 1, 4 and 7, all live together in a single bedroom because it’s all they can afford. The second bedroom in their apartment is rented to others.
The family is part of the growing trend of “multifamily housing,” where families occupy one bedroom of a house or apartment to live cheaply. Families also crowd into motel rooms. These living arrangements are becoming the norm as the economy worsens, says Consuelo Garcia, a community outreach teacher on special assignment at Paul Revere Elementary School.
On a recent visit, Garcia stops by to make sure the family has food, clothing and other basic necessities. Brandon, 7, has been having some emotional problems, and she makes a referral for him to receive counseling at Paul Revere.
Garcia, a member of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association (AEEA), translates for the family so they can describe what it is like to be poor in one of the wealthiest places in the world.
“It’s really difficult to pay the bills,” says Rangel, who lost his job as a mechanic. Martinez supports the family working as a cook from 3 a.m. to 2 p.m., and she also helps prepare food for lunch trucks. Their neighborhood is gang-infested. Their car was broken into. They don’t venture out at night unless absolutely necessary. Rangel hopes things will improve one day and he can have his own business. Meanwhile, he takes care of the children, who barely see their mother.
Jaime Ramirez, a fourth-grade teacher at Mann Elementary School, says most of his students have never been to Disneyland or even the beach, about 20 miles away. Some of them have confided to him that they just stay in their rented bedroom all day on weekdays, because they don’t know the other people who are living in the house. They feel uncomfortable spending time in the living room or kitchen.
Some of his students are practically being raised by their siblings, since their parents are working more than one job. It’s not unusual for teens to attend back-to-school night for younger brothers and sisters because parents are unavailable.
The school is trying to involve parents to a greater extent by encouraging them to visit during the day and participate in school activities.
“We have parent trainings to teach them what their kids are learning, how to understand standards-based report cards, and how they can help their children with homework,” says Ramirez. “It must be helping, because our API is improving every year.”
Janine Ranes, a fifth-grade teacher at Paul Revere Elementary, sometimes visits her students at home. “I see mattresses leaning up against the wall, with multiple children sleeping on one mattress,” she says. “That’s just Anaheim. I don’t think most of my friends realize that severe poverty exists near Disneyland.”
Ranes says most of her students are English learners and 90 percent receive free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch at school. She mentions a student who was suspended last year for bad behavior — his mother called and asked if she could still bring him to school to eat lunch.
“You realize there’s a need there if the mom is thinking he won’t eat lunch.”
Her students lack basic school supplies, too. “If you ask them to color in a diagram for a science project, most will say they don’t have colored pencils, scissors, glue or crayons. I never send anything home that has to be mandatorily cut or pasted.”
“It’s very loud and chaotic,” says Ranes. “You can have five to seven people watching TV on a couch in a studio apartment, and a few kids trying to do homework.”
Jose Magcalas, a history teacher at Loara High School in Anaheim, grew up in the neighborhood where he teaches. The Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association member says that drugs are tempting for older students living in difficult conditions. Medical marijuana dispensaries have located in the area, and he believes students gain access to pot from relatives and friends.
“I believe a lot of kids want to ditch school and do drugs when their parents aren’t home.”
Magcalas tries to expose his students to the larger world through field trips. He helped raise funds to send a dozen students to Washington for the inauguration of President Obama. But there are fewer opportunities for students, since there have been so many cutbacks in his school. The
International Baccalaureate program was eliminated two years ago, and other programs are on the chopping block.
“I think it’s time for poverty to be addressed as an issue,” he says. “During these worsening economic times, schools need to help out. But to be honest, schools can’t do everything.”