Ten years ago, Anita Cota and her family moved from the Gila River Indian Community into Tempe, and her two older daughters enrolled at Wood Elementary School. Shortly after, Cota and her husband separated. Then he was deployed to Iraq.
Suddenly single and struggling financially, Cota started babysitting and catering from her home while caring for her youngest child, then just an infant.
And the school rallied around her family during that time of need.
"What they did for us was incredible," Cota said. "(The school counselor) called the girls in and said, ‘We can talk when you want to.' She supported them. They enveloped them and loved on them. They were incredible. We had the support of our family. We had the support of our church, but we really needed that third area, the school."
Poverty isn't an issue felt only in the home. A hungry child can struggle with learning, worry about life at home and fail to see why it's important to keep up with class work, school leaders say.
Given the rising number of low-income children in the East Valley, teachers have more struggling children sitting in front of them.
In the Tempe Elementary School District, 73.09 percent of students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Last year's percentage was 71.7 percent.
At Wood Elementary alone, 78.21 percent of families qualify, according to district figures from September.
"Children may find it difficult to focus on their academics and school performance when the family may be worrying about losing their home and having to move or where their meals are going to come from," said Dot Hernandez, a counselor at Wood.
Sometimes the only stable aspect in a child's life is school. Teachers are in tune with the changes in a child's actions or personality because they spend six to eight hours a day with them.
"Children are not only impacted by this change economically, but socially and emotionally they are in a transitional mode and in need of positive coping skills and support. The emotional climate at home may be intense and stressful," Hernandez said.
Martha Brown works with homeless students in the Chandler Unified School District who qualify for services under the McKinney-Vento act. The federal legislation requires schools to provide transportation if a child is forced out of their enrollment area by a homeless situation, be it a move into a shelter, with another family or living on the streets. Brown also makes sure school fees are paid and families know about community resources.
One reason students may struggle academically is because they're doubling up with other families, Brown said.
"No. 1, it can be very chaotic getting them to sit down and do homework. It used to be the routine, for them to have a nice quiet place to do their homework in the evenings. Now it's become, ‘Where are we going to stay from night to night?' Or maybe they have six, seven or eight kids in the house so it becomes hard for them to do homework, to concentrate," Brown said.
Sometimes, parents forced to work two shifts or odd hours may not have the time to give kids extra help with that homework.
In Cota's case, staff at Wood school - from the principal to the counselors to the teachers - reached out early on to the single mom with three children.
The school gathered items and shipped them to Iraq, where her children's father was stationed. The school hired Cota to cater events. She was also asked to teach English to Spanish speakers. And, when her daughter needed help with math, teachers stayed after school to lend a hand.
Today, Cota works as a case manager for the Pascua Yaqui tribe, and her children are getting As in school.
It's all part of providing for the whole child, said Chris Busch, associate superintendent for the Tempe Elementary district.
"Teachers are more than just teachers. They are parent partners, confidants, counselors. They take on a variety of hats and roles," Busch said.
Teachers recommend students for math or reading tutoring or homework club, which are all run by staff members. Students may also take part in enrichment activities.
"Families in poverty can't afford to give dance or music lessons after school, so the schools provide those learning opportunities for kids at no cost," Busch said. "Our teachers give of their own time and resources as well to help children be successful."