Schools take on poverty

With more students than ever from low-income families, districts in Clark County have stepped up efforts to help them

By Susan Parrish, Columbian Education Reporter

Published:

 

Schools' changes in poverty rates between 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years

Top 5 with greatest reduction in poverty

(Listed by school name, school district and % decrease)

1 -- Grass Valley Elementary, Camas, 58.4% *

2 -- Skyridge Middle, Camas, 28.5%

3 -- Dorothy Fox Elementary, Camas, 16.6%

4 -- Harney Elementary, Vancouver, 12.6%

5 -- Jason Lee Middle, Vancouver, 8.7%

(*The boundaries for this school changed in 2013.)

Top 5 with greatest increase in poverty

(Listed by school name, school district and % increase)

1 -- Homelink River, Battle Ground, 252.6%

2 -- Green Mountain K-8, Green Mountain, 113.5%

3 -- Pleasant Valley Middle, Vancouver, 107.7%

4 -- Summit View High, Battle Ground, 91.4%

5 -- Skyview High, Vancouver, 82.7%

Note: Determined by the percentage change in number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years.

Source: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

What is considered poverty?

Definition of poverty for a family of four:

• 2015 federal poverty level: $24,250 annual income.

• To qualify for 2014-2015 reduced-price school lunch: $44,123 annual income.

• To qualify for 2014-2015 free school lunch: $31,005 annual income.

For More

For a chart listing the lowest- and highest-income schools in Clark County, plus a look at the poverty rate for each school district by year (from 2007-08 through 2013-14), plus more photos, hover your mouse over the photo above the story and click on the directional arrow to move the photo slider.

For an interactive map and more, scroll to the bottom of the story.

Schools’ changes in poverty rates between 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years

Top 5 with greatest reduction in poverty

(Listed by school name, school district and % decrease)

1 — Grass Valley Elementary, Camas, 58.4% *

2 — Skyridge Middle, Camas, 28.5%

3 — Dorothy Fox Elementary, Camas, 16.6%

4 — Harney Elementary, Vancouver, 12.6%

5 — Jason Lee Middle, Vancouver, 8.7%

(*The boundaries for this school changed in 2013.)

Top 5 with greatest increase in poverty

(Listed by school name, school district and % increase)

1 — Homelink River, Battle Ground, 252.6%

2 — Green Mountain K-8, Green Mountain, 113.5%

3 — Pleasant Valley Middle, Vancouver, 107.7%

4 — Summit View High, Battle Ground, 91.4%

5 — Skyview High, Vancouver, 82.7%

Note: Determined by the percentage change in number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches between the 2007-08 and 2013-14 school years.

Source: Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction

What is considered poverty?

Definition of poverty for a family of four:

• 2015 federal poverty level: $24,250 annual income.

• To qualify for 2014-2015 reduced-price school lunch: $44,123 annual income.

• To qualify for 2014-2015 free school lunch: $31,005 annual income.

For More

For a chart listing the lowest- and highest-income schools in Clark County, plus a look at the poverty rate for each school district by year (from 2007-08 through 2013-14), plus more photos, hover your mouse over the photo above the story and click on the directional arrow to move the photo slider.

For an interactive map and more, scroll to the bottom of the story.

When a Clark County family with elementary school-aged children was living with no heat and broken windows, the school community pitched in to help.

This family was not living in a low-income apartment complex in Vancouver, but in Hockinson, the second-most affluent school district in Clark County, where homes in the Hockinson hills cost from $500,000 to more than $1 million.

Since the Great Recession hit, more Clark County students than ever before are living in poverty. With only a handful of exceptions, every school in Clark County has a higher rate of poverty than it did pre-recession. Some schools have shown signs of recovery, but the lingering effects of the recession remain a challenge for educators.

In the seven school years from pre-recession 2007-08 until post-recession 2013-14, Evergreen Public Schools, the county’s largest district, experienced a 29.3 percent increase in the number of students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Now 46.3 percent of the district’s more than 26,000 students qualify. That’s about 12,000 Evergreen district students living in poverty.

“The numbers are worse now than they ever have been,” said Tim Merlino, superintendent of Educational Service District 112, which works with 30 school districts in Southwest Washington. ESD 112 is meeting with regional superintendents about the problem and hosting seminars geared toward teaching students in poverty.

Although the recession officially ended in 2009, “we still have no recovery in terms of income or wages,” said Scott Bailey, the state’s regional economist. “We still have people who lost their job, no longer are seeking work and are not counted as unemployed.”

Median household income in the county has dropped significantly — from $66,000 in 2007 to $59,000 in 2013. That means there’s been a downward shift across all income levels, Bailey said.

“We’ve seen a lot of families move into the not-quite-poor-but-low-income range,” Bailey said. “Those folks do qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch.”

Clark County schools are using a number of strategies to address the increase in poverty, including establishing resource centers, changing the way teachers work with students living in poverty and leaning more heavily on local charities.

Resource centers

With the highest poverty rate of all 10 school districts in Clark County, Vancouver Public Schools has led the charge in addressing student poverty by creating the first school-based Family-Community Resource Centers in Southwest Washington. Now the district, which has a poverty rate of about 53 percent, has resource centers in 13 of its highest-poverty schools.

Working with community agencies including faith-based organizations, the centers offer low-income families assistance with food, clothing, shelter, employment, transportation, medical and dental care, child care and counseling services. The resource centers have helped reduce student discipline referrals, and have improved student achievement, attendance and kindergarten readiness, said Tamara Shoup, the district’s director of family engagement and Family-Community Resource Centers.

It puts the focus of the classroom back on instruction, not providing a student with basic needs.

“We’re at an exciting point,” Shoup said. “Now we’re looking to provide FCRC services to all schools by 2020.”

When the district’s resource centers and community partners offered free backpacks, school supplies, shoes and haircuts for students in August before school started, more than 2,100 families were helped.

The centers have been so successful that other districts have used the Vancouver model. La Center School District created a rural model to provide school supplies, clothing and backpacks full of food. So far this school year, the resource center has helped about 630 students and their family members, said Sherri Birgensmith, substitute coordinator of the district’s K-8 Family Community Resource Center.

Evergreen Public Schools has five resource centers and plans to open five per year “until we have all of our elementary schools and some middle schools covered,” said Superintendent John Deeder.

Training staff

Some districts are training staff to better work with students living in poverty.

Washougal School District’s social workers are training teachers “how to support students better who have experienced traumas like poverty,” said Julie Bristol, a social worker at Jemtegaard Middle School.

Evergreen Public Schools is working with Donna Beegle, a Portland-based consultant who teaches educators to look at impoverished students in a new way.

Beegle grew up in a family of poor migrant laborers in central Washington, left school to get married at 15 and was headed for a lifetime of poverty. But she changed the course of her life and the lives of her children by getting an education.

Beegle trained Deeder and 11 other Evergreen district staff in December. The district plans to train 250 to 300 school staff members during the summer, and more after that.

“In order to make it out of poverty, you have to have an education and a skill,” Deeder said. “We can’t ignore the fact that kids in poverty need more support in order to get there.”

Deeder knows. He grew up in working-class poverty.

“My parents were married at 16 and had me four months later,” Deeder said. “My sister, 10 months after that. It was a battle the whole time growing up. I don’t want to see our kids lose opportunity.”

Deeder said addressing the problem requires an attitude change. Beegle agreed.

“It’s really about how leaders get grounded in a deeper understanding of poverty and its impact on education,” Beegle said. “To set the tone that it’s not OK to lower the expectations for students who live in the war zone of poverty.”

Community support

Clark County school districts work with a variety of community partners to meet students’ needs. Many school districts receive help from the Share Backpack Program, which delivers nonperishable food to schools to feed students over the weekend. In 2014, the program provided 70,977 bags of food to children at 90 schools.

Camas and Washougal school districts partner with the East County Family Resource Center and the Inter-faith Treasure House, which offer food, clothing, rent assistance and more. Although about half of Battle Ground’s schools receive Share backpacks, the district also works with the North County Community Food Bank and Battle Ground Adventist Community Services.

Ridgefield School District recognized a different need: a shortage of free or low-cost after-school activities at its two elementary schools. The district is working with the Ridgefield community for the inaugural Ridgefield Youth Arts Month. Throughout March, students at all grade levels can learn oil painting, dancing, acting and much more — all at no cost.

“I think that’s one of a superintendent’s most important jobs — to be the advocate for those students who don’t have a voice,” said Ridgefield Superintendent Nathan McCann. “If we’re going to be a great school district, we must meet all our kids’ needs.”

In August, an all-volunteer event in Battle Ground called North County School Readiness Day provides free backpacks, school supplies and clothing to students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The event has been going strong for seven years and shows no sign of slowing down, said Lydia Sanders, homeless liaison for Battle Ground Public Schools.

Rural needs

Most rural districts don’t have easy access to homeless shelters. Homeless students in those districts often end up doubling up with another family or living in a tent, camper or barn. Sanders said she has purchased propane for campers to keep students warm.

Outside of Woodland, the remote Green Mountain School District with only 144 students has restructured its daily schedule to accommodate the needs of students who can’t stay after school due to transportation needs. Now, academic support is offered during lunch rather than after school.

“With the increased socioeconomic need and academic demands, it’s made us be very intentional about how we provide the best level of service to each student,” said Superintendent Joe Jones. “We’re at an advantage because we’re so small.”

Woodland Public Schools is seeing an increase in factors related to poverty, such as increased mobility of students. When a third-grader has attended five different schools and is living with grandma because the nuclear family doesn’t have a home, the student brings academic, social and behavioral challenges, said Superintendent Michael Green.

The district works closely with community resources to connect students and their families with services including Woodland Action Center, the local food bank and Lower Columbia Mental Health, which provides counseling for students.

Even in Camas

Camas, home to the county’s most affluent school district and to most of the county’s higher-paying tech jobs, saw little change in the poverty rate districtwide from before the recession, when 17.8 percent of Camas students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, to 2013-14, when that rate inched up to 17.9 percent.

Even so, the reality is that more than 1,100 students in the Camas School District are living in poverty.

“We have homeless kids in our community, in this small, sweet little school,” said Julie Mueller, principal at Lacamas Heights Elementary, which has 350 students.

In the seven years from the 2007-2008 school year through 2013-2014, the percentage of Lacamas Heights students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals increased by more than 36 percent. Mueller said when the basic needs of her students aren’t met, it affects them socially, emotionally and academically.

“For my little building, we’re at that crisis point,” the principal said. “We can’t just keep stomping out fires.”