August 28, 2008

The Cost of Poverty: Teachers See Firsthand the Effects of Poverty on Children

By Grooms, Autumn

Walking through the school doors each morning, children from low- income families have more on their minds than homework, quizzes and extra-curricular activities. Some have spent the night in cars, at campgrounds or with relatives and friends. They're trying to figure out where they'll sleep that night and who will pick them up from school.

"When it's ongoing and kids come to school worried about Mom and Dad or brothers and sisters, its hard to concentrate," said Susan Schumann, retired supervisor of literacy, assessment and Title I for the La Crosse School District, who also oversaw its homeless program. "A lot of learning gets lost in class."

The proportion of students receiving free or reduced-cost lunch topped 35 percent in many Coulee Region school districts during the 2007-08 school year and was above 50 percent in others, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

In La Crosse, Monroe, Crawford and Vernon counties, 17.5 percent of children live below federal poverty guidelines, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Some attribute the high numbers to newcomers moving into the area from larger metropolitan areas, but local officials say many of the area's poor are residents who have chosen to stay and raise their family in the same community they grew up in.

Many factors contribute to the high level of children living in poverty, but low wages and lack of opportunity are a major contributor, said Shelly Teadt, director of planning for CouleeCap, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty and promotes self- sufficiency for people in the Coulee Region.

Area school administrators anticipate the numbers of students qualifying for the subsidized meals will increase this school year as gas prices, food costs and unemployment rates continue to climb.

"The economy has to turn around. Jobs are a part of it and the cost of living," said Kristi Moyer, director of student services for the La Crosse School District. "As a society we overextend, and I think many people are being impacted, but kids bear the brunt of it."

The diverse needs of these children have been identified in school districts throughout the region, and many are working to help these kids before it's too late. The risk is the greatest for kids who experience poverty young or who experience long-term poverty," Teadt said.

West Salem School District Superintendent Nancy Burns said student achievement and free and reduced-cost lunch typically have a direct link.

The greater number of students receiving free and reduced (cost) lunch, the lower student achievement," Burns said. That is why more federal funds and other grants are available.

Burns worked in Rockford, Ill., and Green Bay school districts, where the free and reduced-cost lunch count was much higher than West Salem, before coming to the school district three years ago.

She said the parent involvement and the number of students needing support is significantly different.

The Cashton School District is working to "close the achievement gap" that can be found when there is a high percentage of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunch, said Superintendent Brad Saron. Cashton's figure for the 2007-08 school year was 44 percent, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

Through field trips, enrichment activities, after-school tutoring and technology, Saron said the school district "provides a rich environment with high expectations."

Cashton schools have been working to educate families about the benefits of free and reduced-cost lunch and the positive effects it has districtwide by bringing in additional Student Achievement Guarantee in Education and Title I funds that help to keep class sizes small. There is also the guarantee of a complete breakfast and lunch each day.

Staff members have kept a confidential system and "outright show caring" to those applying for the subsidized meals. The efforts, he said, have facilitated an atmosphere of understanding in the Monroe County community, Saron said. "It is a delicate situation."

The McKinney-Vinto Act, part of the federal No Child Left Behind program, outlines school districts' responsibilities to students who are or become homeless during the school year. The act mandates districts supply students with transportation and no-cost lunches without the paperwork.

Students are considered homeless when their family is without a home, living with another family, staying at a shelter or several other situations. La Crosse schools had 96 homeless students during the 2007-08 school year.

"I've found that kids who are in situations where housing is often a big question mark do not do as well," Schumann said. "They are often bouncing from school to school. McKinney-Vinto recognizes that."

School provides some stability in students' lives when their world is failing apart, Schumann said, "School doesn't change," she said. "They are still with their friends and their teacher or teachers."


Where La Crosse School District homeless students lived during the 2007-08 school year:

24: At a shelter

61: With friends or family

2: Unsheltered in cars, parks or campgrounds

9: Hotels and motels

SOURCE: La Crosse School District

Copyright La Crosse Tribune Aug 3, 2008

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