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Lessons to learn: Schoolchildren suffer economic pain

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Economic woes hit the next generation

The prolonged US economic downturn has devastated many children who have seen their lifestyles collapse, their parents out of work, and their homes repossessed. And as Katty Kay reports from Rhode Island, the harm to school performance could have a lasting effect on the nation's future.

Skylyn Paiva and her family have lived the American dream, in reverse. On the way up in the flush years before the recession, they had a booming home construction business earning almost $1 million (£632,671) a year and a working horse farm.

But when the real estate market crashed, their comfortable lifestyle proved to be far beyond their means. Skylyn's parents began fighting and drinking and soon divorced. In July, the family home was lost to foreclosure.

"It's tough to have had everything you ever wanted - it's a girl's dream to have a horse," said Skylyn, 16. "To lose everything, it made us cry."

A growing body of research shows economic recessions have a dire effect on children often too young to understand employment statistics and real estate market figures.

Grades lagging

When children are forced to move out of repossessed homes or families are strained by unemployment, reading and maths scores decline. And a new study by the IMF suggests children of the unemployed are more likely to repeat a year of school and more likely to earn less than their peers when they do leave school.

American children's school grades already lag behind those of some other countries and cannot afford to slip further. But the impact of this downturn on children is more than academic.

Therapist Sharon Rust-Bottone
For kids who have had privilege in their lives, to then have to rethink that makes them question their own role
Counsellor Sharon Rust-Bottone

In Portsmouth, Skylyn longs for the good times past.

"I would always get shoes whenever I wanted, clothes, make-up, jewellery beyond galore, for every outfit I had every colour," she said.

With Skylyn's father gone from the home, Holly Paiva, her 35-year-old mother, is the five children's primary caregiver.

Sitting in the Portsmouth house they now rent, she said the children had suffered emotionally and academically.

"They all struggled in school and they didn't want to go," Ms Paiva said. "Their grades slipped a little bit because there was a lot going on in our lives."

End to privilege

Both Skylyn and her 15-year-old sister Jadyn have entered counselling. Once a week, they meet therapist Sharon Rust-Bottone at Child and Family Services in nearby Middletown.

Since the recession began, Ms Rust-Bottone has seen more and more children like the Paivas - helpless victims of an economic crisis.

"For kids who have had privilege in their lives, to then have to rethink that makes them question their own role," she said. "The way they fit in with friends and that whole peer pressure thing - it all becomes magnified."

The stressor for students now is that it's been a long time and I think some of the parents lose hope and there's despair, and when there's despair that shadows onto the students
Principal Joseph Amoral, Portsmouth Middle School

At schools across Newport County, where an astonishing 56% of school children live in poverty, administrators and counsellors are growing increasingly worried about the extraordinary length of this downturn.

At Portsmouth Middle School, which 13-year-old Winter Paiva attends, the number of children taking free or reduced-cost lunches (a standard measure of school students' economic well-being) continues to rise.

Principal Joseph Amoral worries about the long-term impact.

Education aid cut

"Even in the best of times we have parents who become unemployed, but they quickly pick up other employment and things are fine," Mr Amoral said.

"The stressor for students now is that it's been a long time and I think some of the parents lose hope and there's despair, and when there's despair that shadows onto the students."

Compounding the problem here for parents and students is Rhode Island's dire fiscal condition. The state has cut education aid and reduced the number of young children served by school programmes like Head Start.

Local officials have few weapons at their disposal in dealing with the crisis. What money Newport Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano has secured from Washington DC has done little good, and she warns the city's physical infrastructure is near collapse.

America's future vigour lies with the next generation. This country will rely on its children to keep it competitive.

But the recession risks undoing years of social and academic progress. That's hurting children - and adults too.



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