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An educator fights poverty

Elizabeth Giacobbe is superintendent of Beverly City School District, where it’s not uncommon for students to begin the school day already tired and hungry.

Beverly City School sits in a small city that hugs New Jersey’s stretch of the Delaware River. Of the 315 or so students who attend for kindergarten through eighth grade, 70% live at or below the poverty line. Last year, there were 30 homeless students enrolled.

It might seem that Beverly City School Superintendent Elizabeth Giacobbe’s day-to-day work would be more emotionally taxing than gratifying. But she feels differently. “It’s not my career,” she told MSNBC. “It’s a calling.”

During her first teaching position 20 years ago, Giacobbe said, she grew passionate about the “plight of the urban student,” and eventually went on to become superintendent of Beverly City School District, located in Burlington County, where it’s not uncommon for students to begin the school day already tired and hungry.

Witnessing the “astronomical” toll of poverty on their students is a daily weight for Giacobbe and her staff. “My kids are always in a state of survival mode,” she told MSNBC. “Always operating from a fight or flight mode. They’ve got bigger things on their mind.” How do you educate students who face constant worries – about food, shelter or family life, for instance – that extend beyond the classroom?

To help lessen the burden of poverty on their students, Giacobbe and her staff took matters into their own hands. They often use their own financial resources to provide low-income students with basic necessities to help them through the day – chipping in thousands of dollars to purchase items such as toothpaste, lotion, tampons, clothing, food, holiday gifts and even housing. 

By pooling personal resources – an effort that Giacobbe insists is a testament to the magnanimous spirit of her staff – they hope to give their students the chance at a normal school day.

During Thanksgiving and holiday break last year, Giacobbe opened her home to three homeless students, and she recently received her license to serve as a foster parent. Giacobbe, who is 42-years-old and doesn’t have any children of her own, could soon be a foster parent for up to four kids. As an educator who embraces her role as "matriarch" of the school, she views the possibility as more rewarding than daunting. "I've found great clarity about what I want to do for my students and myself," she said.

Though Giacobbe and her staff – the “Beverly City family,” as they call themselves – make daily sacrifices for their students, they don't see it as troublesome, or praiseworthy. For them, it’s about teamwork and heart – and contributing where they can so students can learn and grow. “We all rally around each other,” Giacobbe said.

Her students, she says, have given her life a lot more meaning. “I feel like the lucky one.”

Elizabeth will join two other Grow Your Value finalists on stage this Friday, October 23 at Boston's Know Your Value event - part of a nationwide movement to empower women in the workplace. You can catch her and the other Grow Your Value finalists compete for $10,000 at where we’ll be livestreaming the event.