Reading, writing, arithmetic collide with poverty in Pennsylvania

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CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- When poverty hits at home, it also hits at school.

For a child with few resources at home, attending school -- in mind and body -- can be tough.

What if there was no dinner last night or breakfast this morning? What if Mom's job made bedtime late? What happens when conditions at home make it hard to focus on schoolwork? What if, in winter, there are only shorts to wear?

These are just some of the issues an increasing number of children face as they walk into their classrooms each day.

All but one school district in Franklin County saw a significant increase between 2005 and 2011 in the number of students who live in poverty, according to data compiled by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and U.S. Census Bureau.

Waynesboro Area School District and Chambersburg Area School District are at the top, with 51.9 percent and 55.5 percent, respectively.

Greencastle-Antrim stands at 36.9 percent, Tuscarora is at 43.1 percent and Shippensburg is at 23 percent.

Pennsylvania has experienced a 15.5 percent increase in children living in poverty.

Only Fannett-Metal had fewer students in poverty after seven years. The district had 53 fewer impoverished children, but at the same time, the district dropped 44 students from enrollment.

Poverty reflected at school

The various ways in which poverty at home affects a child at school include physical and mental challenges. All can damage a child's overall well-being.

The impact of poverty on a child depends on his or her home environment and attitude toward his situation, said Lynn Troutman, a counselor at James Buchanan High School, Tuscarora Area School District. Effects can include poor nutrition, dressing inappropriately for the weather, sleepiness, incomplete assignments and more issues that can cause a student to lack focus in the classroom or not comprehend material.

Stress can be one of the most influential factors in how a child's home life affects his education.

Parents' response to stress from a financial situation can burden a child, lowering self-esteem in ways that affect the child's academic and social success at school, said John Iceland, head of the department of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Mr. Iceland is the author of "Poverty in America," the third edition of which was published this year.

School programs help students of economically disadvantaged families. Tuscarora schools offer breakfast, which helps students emotionally and academically, Ms. Troutman said.

More students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches at school, according to the data. The largest jump was in Greencastle-Antrim School District, the county's most affluent district, where nearly 300 more students became eligible for the program from 2005 to 2011. Eligibility rose by 70 percent in the Greencastle area compared to 10.5 percent statewide. Generally, a quarter of county students were eligible for the program in 2005 compared to a third eligible by 2010.

Tuscarora also hosts food drives around the holidays to help low-income families in the district, said Brenda Ford, another Buchanon High School counselor. Some people even donate clothing and gifts.

The nurse keeps clothing in her office, and district social workers do home visits and help connect families in need with food banks, Ms. Ford said.

Revenues during recession

Overall, the data shows Franklin County school districts fared better than districts statewide in maintaining local revenues:

• Chambersburg School District led the way with 32 percent growth in total local revenue. Waynesboro, Fannett-Metal and Greencastle-Antrim local revenue grew less than 15 percent. The state average was 6 percent.

• Local real estate tax revenue grew by 19 percent or more during the seven years 2005 to 2011, compared to 9 percent across the state. The lion's share of a school district's budget comes from real estate tax revenue.

• Total revenue from the earned income tax dropped in Tuscarora, Fannett-Metal and Shippensburg school districts while Greencastle-Antrim and Waynesboro saw about 25 percent increases. Chambersburg School District increased its earned income tax rate from 1 percent to 1.7 percent in 2008, and revenue from that source soared by 141 percent. Other districts did not raise their income tax rate.

• Fewer properties were sold during the recession so school districts got less real estate transfer tax -- a third less in Fannett-Metal and two-thirds less in Greencastle-Antrim, Chambersburg and Tuscarora. The real estate transfer tax revenue fell by half across the state.

Community support

The recession may not have hit Franklin County schools as hard as others in the state but, according to Ms. Troutman, schools still can pay for only so many supplemental programs. This is where local organizations step in.

The program Building Our Pride in Chambersburg, better known as BOPIC, provides supplemental academic, nutritional and life-skill services to economically disadvantaged families in Franklin County, according to its website.

The core of its work is based in nutrition, said BOPIC president Jack Jones.

"For most economically disadvantaged children, that's their number one deficiency," he said.

BOPIC's summer nutritional program provides the same subsidized meals children get during school, either free or at a reduced price. The program feeds 500 children every summer, but sometimes that does not feel like enough, Mr. Jones said.

"Here's the reality: There are 8,500 children enrolled [in Chambersburg district schools] and I believe 70-some percent of those children ... qualify for free and reduced-[price] meals during the school year," Mr. Jones said.

BOPIC also provides tutoring in math and reading to students in grades 1 through 5. In collaboration, the school district provides 10 to 12 certified teachers to work with Title 1 students involved in the program.

Being economically disadvantaged does not mean a child has to suffer as a student, Mr. Jones said.

Chambersburg Memorial YMCA offers Sam's Program. It meets for two hours each Tuesday and provides children with snacks, games and access to the basketball gym and pool.

"It's just a safe place to be," said Nikki Velleman, the youth director for the YMCA.

Ms. Velleman also helps to run programs the YMCA offers before and after school at its facility and at six elementary schools.

"I know that when I'm over at Ben Chambers Elementary helping them do their homework, that many don't have a chance to do it at home," Ms. Velleman said. "Sometimes it's not quiet enough or sometimes the parents aren't able to help, so they can do it when they are at the program."

Participating in these programs helps the students' well-being and in turn, their performance in school, she said.

The Boys and Girls Club of Chambersburg and Shippensburg provides a place for children to go after school as well and offers a variety of recreational and educational programs. Programs change often, said executive director Karyn Gramata.

These include Project Learn, which uses games to encourage academics, and Power Hour, an hour-long tutoring or homework session.

"My kids, they know they have to graduate," Ms. Gramata said. "We keep track of their grades and look at their report cards. We are really involved in their lives and want them to do well."

Coping with poverty

Despite the help available both in and out of school, how a child deals with an economic disadvantage often depends on how much he has accepted it. This is where the dividing line between new and old poverty can be seen.

Children who have spent their lives in poverty tend to see it as just how the world is, Ms. Troutman said. Children in families who were once financially stable but fell on hard times can feel devastated and become angry, bitter and sometimes lash out, she added.

Most people have seen or heard a financially disadvantaged youth being belittled by a classmate. Amid campaigns against bullying for any reason, affected students may find solace in that there are an increasing number of children experiencing poverty for them to relate to.

"Relative economic position really matters in how people feel about themselves, see themselves," Mr. Iceland said.

Motivation is often the factor behind whether a student is empowered or discouraged by his family's financial woes.

"Sometimes when we call in kids to talk about future plans, some kids are very motivated to be successful, motivated to go to college to make sure they're not in poverty later in life," Ms. Troutman said. "Some are very inspired by it; others are kids who have just figured that's how it is in life."

Planning for the future

Local organizations help students get the education necessary for jobs that can keep them out of poverty as adults. The Boys and Girls Club offers the programs Goals for Graduation and Job Ready, which help students focus on life after high school and encourage them to pursue higher education. Sam's Program offers college grants to high school seniors who have been with the program from grades 8 through 12.

Childhood poverty, dealt with well or not, can extend beyond school years and mold a person's logic for the rest of his life. The generation growing up during the current recession may be susceptible to generalizations later in life, such as the "serious" attitude associated with the generation who grew up during the Great Depression, Mr. Iceland said.

"They might care more about doing what it takes to make a living; they may be more thrifty," he said.

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