PARKERSBURG - Over the past dozen years, the portion of Wood County Schools children receiving free and reduced meals has grown from just over a third of the student population to over half of that population.
Wood County Schools Superintendent Pat Law talked about the impact of poverty on children in the school district during a community forum at First Presbyterian Church on Friday afternoon, hosted by the Circles Poverty Initiative in Parkersburg and by the statewide program Our Children, Our Future: Campaign to End Child Poverty.
"It's a problem in Wood County that is unfortunately a growing program," Law said. "Our free and reduced rates have increased... That has increased from about 37 percent back in the year 2000 to over 53 percent now; we're actually above the state average," he said.
Pat Law, superintendent of Wood County Schools, talks about the impact of poverty on schoolchildren during a forum Friday at First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg. (Photo by Wayne Towner)
Law said Wood County Schools has been working to find ways to address the problem of child poverty in the schools. One initiative has been to train teachers on methods of addressing poverty in their students' backgrounds.
Another has involved increasing the number of social workers in the school system, in part, to address poverty-related issues like absenteeism.
More than 50 members of the community and representatives of local agencies and programs aimed at serving children participated in Friday's forum, said John Ruehl, coordinator of the Circles Poverty Initiative in Parkersburg.
"We hope this will be the beginning of a conversation between agencies about how to better to collaborate our efforts. We find ourselves, honestly, in some cases duplicating services which means competition between agencies. We don't need to be investing in that; we need to figure out how we can better collaborate," Ruehl said.
In addition to presentations by Law and by Stephen Smith, representing Our Children, Our Future, Ruehl said Friday's forum provided an opportunity for the local agencies to discuss ways to better collaborate on addressing the issue of poverty in the community.
During his presentation Friday, Smith said the Our Children, Our Future program conducted a six-month series of meetings across West Virginia to get input on issues and goals that need to be addressed in terms of child poverty. From those meetings was developed a 10-point plan of immediate goals and issues which the program has been working on. That has included discussions and forums with local agencies and seeking support from local communities and residents for legislative initiatives and issues, Smith said.
Among those issues is seeking support for expanding Medicaid in West Virginia to 138 percent of the poverty line in the state, which would open health care to 120,000 more working families in the state. Smith said that initiative is at the top of the program's list of goals for this year.
The program is seeking to protect - and increase - funding for family violence prevention, to stop child care cuts and to stop doctors from over-prescribing paid medications. Other goals include supporting healthy food initiatives in schools, expanding truancy programs and providing parent education and support programs, he said.