In 2015, Governor Cuomo issued a glum report on the crisis of failing schools in New York State. Among those singled out was Poughkeepsie High School. Unhappy with this stigma, a trifecta of the school’s teachers decided it was time for a change. “A few of us started feeling a bit negative. The morale among staff and students was at an all-time low,” recalls social studies teacher Jennifer Burke. Along with fellow department member Shanna Andrawis and science teacher Demetra Kapogiannis, the trio formed a faculty-led volunteer coalition with the mission of cultivating stronger relationships between students, their families, the school, and the community. Their first project: the Teen Closet, which launched in December to help combat the harrowing statistic that 86 percent of the school’s students live in poverty.
A supportive school board responded by building a closet and providing shelving to stock an array of personal hygiene items, along with brand-new hats, gloves, underwear, socks, and T-shirts donated by community agencies, businesses, and residents. The Teen Closet has even gained support from the Poughkeepsie Police Department, with one officer spearheading a donation drive through her own social media outlets.
“When students do not have their basic needs fulfilled, it directly impacts their ability to learn,” says Andrawis. “For example, they will miss school, or when they do come to class, they may isolate themselves and not be engaged in the lesson.” Students who might feel embarrassed about their financial situation can feel comfortable knowing their requests for items like deodorant and toothpaste are confidential. They simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and arrangements are made to pick up the goods privately, with no questions asked. This discreet approach is working, with supplies now sought out daily. Packages are being assembled for some students at the middle and elementary schools to boot. “The board has been helpful in transporting donations,” points out Kapogiannis.
While the teachers are thrilled by the response, the overall goal of the Teen Closet transcends providing free shampoo and winter scarves to those who can’t afford them. “It has become an umbrella for other initiatives,” adds Kapogiannis, noting the creation of community luncheons that offer hot meals when school isn’t in session and a book drive for early childhood literacy. Currently the group is organizing a mentor program for high school students to help district fifth-graders with math and science homework every week. Perhaps most ambitiously — and importantly — they hope to provide much-needed optometry and mental health services to students in the future.
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