Washington County school districts feeling impact of high poverty rate

MARIETTA — The students went away, but for the most part the poverty did not.

That’s the story told by a set of figures released Thursday by the Census Bureau. Each year the Census issues the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, which are refined down to the county and school district level. The latest figures are for 2016.

Since 2000, Marietta City Schools has lost an estimated 832 school-age people in its district, but the number of children living in poverty has increased by an estimated 196, according to the survey. In 2000, the poverty rate for children age 5-17 was 13.64 percent. In 2016, it was 23.63 percent, suggesting that many people moved away from the area during the recession that began in 2008, and many of those who remained have not recovered from it.

The SAIPE is an incremental calculation that extrapolates data from several census sources to reach estimates of population, income and poverty. It uses 100 percent of the federal poverty level, which in 2016 for a family of four was a household income of $24,700, to determine that status.

Marietta City Schools board member Russ Garrison said the effects of poverty on students are daily issues in the school system.

“The administration and the teachers are aware of it, they feel the impact of that trend as they deal with schools and students,” he said. “The number of kids in poverty and how that manifests itself is recognized and is having a growing impact.”

Schools are trying to adapt by helping children who are suffering economically, Garrison said. Tabby’s Closet at Marietta High School offers free personal care supplies, and the school has a discreetly located a laundry facility for students who need to wash their clothing at school.

“Schools are working on curriculum, especially literacy, where a lot of the impact shows up, there’s a focus on language arts and development through guided reading,” he said, noting that literacy problems are not exclusively linked to poverty. “The fraction of our kids who are not ready to enter kindergarten is perilously close to the poverty rate.”

Like other school leaders, Garrison said the poverty rate they pay attention to is the level at which children qualify for free and reduced lunches under federal and state education guidelines, which is 200 percent of the poverty level. Under that measurement, he said, the poverty rate among children in Marietta City Schools is closer to 48 percent.

Garrison said the emphasis needs to be at the kindergarten level, preparing students at that entry point for success in first and second grades.

“We need to ask ourselves how we make sure we’re intervening properly, how to structure classes, and there are always efforts underway about how do you teach,” he said.

The concept of keeping unprepared children in kindergarten for two years has been discussed, he said.

In other Washington County districts the poverty level is not as profound but the impact is apparent everywhere.

Fort Frye Local Schools is one that has seen student enrollment decline while the poverty rate went up and later receded. In 2000, the district was home to 1,197 children age 5-17, with 12.95 percent in poverty. The poverty rate went up to 15.27 percent in 2010 and went to slightly below the pre-recession rate at 11.97 percent in 2016. But superintendent Stephanie Starcher said the symptoms of poverty remain a concern in the district.

“Perception-wise, we don’t notice a decrease in poverty, maybe because it didn’t decrease that much, “ she said. “I don’t see a decrease in poverty and need, what I see is an increase in need, the social, emotional and behavioral needs of kids. We are overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of these kids.”

She said symptoms usually tied to poverty can arise from other influences: social changes, the drug crisis, the breakdown of the traditional family.

“The needs that are typically associated with poverty are the greatest I have ever seen,” said Starcher, who has been an educator for more than 20 years.

“We’ve passed a mental health levy, we’re pursuing grants, these issues are getting more state and national attention, but we need to recognize that for a decade we reduced that support,” she said.

The Warren Local school district has seen the school-age population in its area decline by an estimated 312 since 2000, but the poverty rate among its students went from 5.15 percent in 2000 to a post-recession 12.37 percent in 2010. For 2016, it edged up slightly to 12.51 percent.

The effect has influenced nearly every aspect of education in the district, superintendent Kyle Newton said.

“We have 32 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch, and some months that is over 40 percent,” he said. “That affects everything you do as an educator, and if it doesn’t you’re not paying attention.”

Warren is making a broad effect to meet the needs of its students outside the usual realm of academics, he said.

“We have chosen to pay the difference to provide free breakfast for all our students,” he said.

The district did not quite meet the poverty level required for senior governments to pay for the entire program, but Newton said the added expense was worth it.

“We know that this has made a huge difference in our students’ lives,” he said. “We focus on academics, but we also address roadblocks to instruction that are not educational.”

Newton said the district is working to become a center of engagement for students and the community as a whole. In May, Warren passed a bond issue that will allow the district to rebuild almost its entire physical presence, including a new high school and elementary school and an expansion to the middle school.

“Engagement is the biggest thing in rural school districts, in and out of the classroom. We want to make them part of the community at school, even when school is not in session,” he said. “At a meeting about the building project the other night, if I said the word ‘community’ once, I must have said it 50 times.”

Wolf Creek Local Schools is the outlier in the data, having started in 2000 with a poverty rate of 16.53 percent which surged to more than 26 percent in 2010 but then receded to 8.65 percent in 2016. Superintendent Doug Baldwin said he doesn’t have a ready explanation for the unusually low poverty rate in his district but it makes efforts to extend help to those children who need it.

“At some point I think we had the impression that people were too proud to do the paperwork for free and reduced cost meals, but now we get a certified list from family services,” he said. “We try to reach out to those people who do need help.”

Belpre City Schools is another district that appears not to have recovered from the recession. In 2000, the district had 18.24 percent of its school age population living in poverty. That went up to 25.57 percent in 2010, and declined to 22.11 percent in 2016. During that 16-year period, the district lost 285 in enrollment.

Even those daunting figures understate the struggle in the district, superintendent Tony Dunn said.

“Our district certification (for free and reduced cost meals) is 48 percent. As I work with other superintendents, I am convinced we are the hub of poverty in Washington County. You find pockets all over … but Belpre is holistically the most impoverished place in the county,” he said.

Dunn, who has been at Belpre seven years, said the figures bear out the conclusion that during the recession, those who had the means to leave and seek out work elsewhere left while those without the means to relocate remained.

“I don’t think we have recovered from that recession very well at all,” he said.

“But we’re doing great things with our kids,” he said, noting that the staff has taken over a program called Blessing in a Backpack, sending food home on weekends with children they believe would not otherwise have enough to eat while away from school. There is a similar program in Marietta schools.

The census data released Thursday also included median income figures for counties. In Washington County, the data showed that median household income had increased from $35,429 in 2000 to $47,802 in 2016, an increase of 34.9 percent. During the same period the Consumer Price Index, the most commonly used measure of inflation, increased by 40.24 percent.

Garrison said that for many who do not work in schools, poverty might be less visible.

“It’s real, it’s part of our community. If you’re established and well-off, you don’t necessarily see it in your day-to-day interactions. If you’re not getting out of your box, you may not see it, but teachers are. They see that growing impact,” he said.

***

At a Glance

Students living in poverty in Washington County schools in 2016 and (2000)

* Belpre City Schools: 22.1 percent (18.24 percent)

* Fort Frye Local Schools: 11.89 percent (12.95 percent)

* Frontier Local Schools: 15.82 percent (20.02 percent)

* Marietta City Schools: 23.63 percent (13.64 percent)

* Warren Local Schools: 12.51 percent (5.15 percent)

* Wolf Creek Local Schools: 8.35 percent (16.53 percent)

COMMENTS