Nearly one in five students in two local school districts are living in poverty.
Five Waupaca County school districts have seen the number of children living in poverty more than double in the past three years.
The U.S. Census Bureau and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recently released data on children and poverty. All seven districts in Waupaca County have experienced significant increases in the number of children living in poverty.
According to the Census Bureau, a family of four is considered living in poverty if its income is less than $22,350 per year.
What teachers see
In the Clintonville area, the Census Bureau reports that 330 school-aged children live below the poverty level.
“We’re seeing more kids coming to school without coats, jackets, hats, mittens or boots,” said Chris Van Hoof, director of instruction for the Clintonville Public School District. “Our enrollment in the free or reduced lunch program has gone up dramatically. And there are students who ask for more food at lunch because they don’t know if they will be able to eat dinner at home.”
Van Hoof said schools consider students to be living in poverty if their families qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
According to federal eligibility guidelines, children in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $28,655 a for a family of four, can receive free lunches.
Children who qualify for reduced-price lunches are from families whose annual income is less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That means an income under $40,800 for a family of four.
Van Hoof said 40.6 percent of Clintonville students qualified for the subsidized lunch program during the 2008-09 school year. That figure climbed to 48.6 percent in 2010-11.
During the same period, Wisconsin went from 34.7 percent to 39.3 percent of students statewide receiving subsidized lunches.
“We’re way above the state average and our poverty is growing faster than the rest of the state,” Van Hoof said.
In the Waupaca School District, the 2010 census reported 370 children living in poverty. The district reports that 911 students, 40 percent of the total enrollment, were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in 2010-11. In 2007-08, 694 students qualified for subsidized meals at the schools.
Administrators and teachers in Waupaca are seeing more students struggling to pay fees.
“We have several students who signed up for CAPP (Cooperative Academic Partnership Program) courses but now, due to family employment changes, are having difficulty coming up with the money. We have over 200 students on our obligations list – owing money for registration, class fees, etc. Some of those students qualify for free and reduced price lunch, but many more of them tell me they can’t pay right now because their family doesn’t have the money,” said Rob Becker, who is a principal at Waupaca High School. “I believe our percentage of students who participate for free and reduced price meals is far below those who would actually qualify.”
Susan Davenport, principal at Chain O’ Lakes Elementary School, said staff there are seeing more students who do not have money for extras, such as school supplies, field trip tickets and healthier snacks.
“There is an increased need for the school or classroom to provide appropriate winter clothes and food for weekend and holiday snacks,” Davenport said.
What children experience
Ben Rayome, the principal at Waupaca Middle School, said teachers and staff notice students coming to school in the same clothes day after day and “talking about what they do not have at home – little food, no running water, no gas, no TV, no presents for Christmas.”
Rayome pointed to the issues that children in poor families worry about.
“Their basic needs – food and shelter – are not being met, resulting in students not doing as much homework or studying outside of school. It is harder for students in poverty to stay focused as they often worry about what is awaiting them when they get home,” Rayome said. “Students may act out, especially during the holidays, as a way to gain attention or trying to address the needs that are not being met. There are typically more incidents of theft and selling of drugs as the holidays approach.”
Ed Dombrowski, district administrator in Manawa, said teachers and staff there are not seeing signs of a significant increase in poverty among students.
In Manawa, the Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of the students lived in poverty in 2010, up from 10.9 percent in 2007.
Dombrowski said the district has a long-standing policy of waiving fees for activities if a student’s family cannot afford them.
“At the high school, we’re noticing that more families are delaying payments or asking to be put on a payment plan for fees,” Dombrowski said.
He said many athletes donate their shoes to the school so that low-income students can use them to participate in sports.
“We also have a lot of parents and people in the community who donate money to a fund that we use to provide snowboots for students,” Dombrowski said.
Where poverty rates tripled
The Iola-Scandinavia School District has seen its poverty rate among children triple, from 4.5 percent in 2003 to 15.3 percent in 2010.
“Teachers in our schools observe students coming to school without basic school supplies such as backpacks, notebooks, etc.,” I-S District Administrator Joe Price said. “Often times, school personnel will be the first to notice a child does not have appropriate winter clothing or winter boots.”
Price noted that children from poor families come to school burdened with worries that are normally the concern of adults.
“Children worry about how mom or dad will pay the bills. They worry people may find out their family is poor. They worry about not having what ‘all the other kids have.’ Some even worry if the electricity will be turned off or that they won’t have enough money for heat,” Price said. “It’s a reality our children shouldn’t have to worry about.”
More than twice as many students are eligible for subsidized meals in the Iola-Scandinavia School District now than seven years ago.
In the 2003-04 school year, 15.5 percent of I-S students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. In 2010-11, 35.1 percent qualified.
In the Weyauwega-Fremont School District, 17 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2007-08. That figure more than doubled to 38 percent in 2010-11.
“Poverty is not just something we see on television. Living in poverty is real even in Waupaca County,” said W-F District Administrator Scott Bleck.
The Census Bureau counted 164 children living at the poverty level in the Weyauwega-Fremont School District. The number of children living in poverty has grown from 4.8 percent in 2003 to 14.1 percent in 2010.
While most children come to school with an overwhelming desire to learn, Bleck said children in poverty have to overcome everyday obstacles that most children seldom experience.
“As a district, we strive to give all students an equal opportunity to achieve success. With increased poverty being experienced, classrooms teachers must remain sensitive to student demographics and needs. Teachers are entrusted to ensure that student needs are being meet. If a student’s basic needs are not being met, teachers are asked to communicate with school and county support channels,” Bleck said.
How poverty impacts learning
Van Hoof said teachers in Clintonville “are seeing increased levels of stress at younger and younger ages. We think it’s due to the financial stress their parents are facing. The children may not be responsible for making the money, but they are certainly aware that things are more difficult for their family.”
High levels of stress, lack of sleep and hunger make it more difficult for a child to learn.
Children living with the chronic stress associated with poverty actually experiences physical changes in their brains, according to Eric Jensen, in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind.
“A stressed neuron generates a weaker signal, handles less blood flow, processes less oxygen and extends fewer connective branches to nearby cells. The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called ‘stress hormone,'” Jensen writes.
Clintonville teachers are studying Jensen’s book, and he will speak at next year’s staff inservice program.
“It’s just not OK for test scores to go down because poverty is going up,” Van Hoof said. “We can’t control the students’ home environment, so we’re doing what we can when they are with us.”