TRINITY — After talking with some friends the other day, a little boy approached Trinity Elementary principal Kathryn Rushe with a serious look on his face.
He wanted to know how he could get free lunch from the school cafeteria.
"I think he just didn't want to brown-bag it anymore," Rushe said.
With the economy the way it is, though, Rushe sent home an application for federally subsidized meals with the boy. Just in case.
In the past year, Pasco County public schools have seen an 18 percent spike in the number of children who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. And they're not all in the poorest parts of the county.
Some of the county's most affluent communities, including Trinity, have suffered their share of unemployment, foreclosures and pay cuts as well. The schools bear witness to the changes.
"We had a whole bunch of families on interest-only mortgages," Rushe said. "The reality of the economy hit really hard."
Trinity, a bedroom community filled with professionals, saw its participation in free and reduced-price meals rise by 76 percent in a year, from 60 children to 106.
The school has had some poor families over time, but never as high a percentage as this year.
Sand Pine Elementary, serving the solidly upper-middle class Meadow Pointe subdivision, saw a 63 percent increase during the same period. A quarter of its students now get meal subsidies, up from an average of 14 percent over the past seven years.
"It's been a transition in the current population we have," assistant principal Todd Cluff said, calling the current spate of poverty "situational."
As such, schools aren't seeing some of the problems that those with generational poverty face, such as children who lack academic support in their home life.
But the stresses of major life changes do impact the schools.
A larger number of children are acting up during class hours at Sand Pine, as opposed to past years when the administration could identify the "usual suspects" more easily, Cluff observed.
At Trinity, there's been an increase in requests for individual and group counseling, guidance counselor Whitney Batista said.
Many are trying to cope with the loss of a home, or the splitting up of their parents, or similar problems.
"I deal with as much as I can," Batista said. "I have a waiting list."
The schools also have had to scale back on some of the things they have in the past taken for granted.
Trinity has seen a decrease in the number of families contributing to the school's supply fee collection, although its recent fundraiser drew more donations than the past year's.
A year ago, Sand Pine's PTA wouldn't have hesitated to charge families for a movie night at the school. This past week, the group discussed ways to have fun programs with no associated costs.
The schools are helping more families to afford spirit shirts, field trips, supplies and even books from the school book fair.
"This year, I've heard more talk of, 'We can't afford that,' " Cluff said.
It remains to be seen whether the schools will experience an academic fallout from the increase in students in poverty.
In past years, Trinity and Sand Pine rarely have had enough economically disadvantaged students to make any statistically significant observations about their academic achievement as a group.
But the couple of times when the numbers have been large enough at Sand Pine, Cluff said, the school has not met progress standards for the group in math.
Several Sand Pine teachers included improving math instruction for low-income children in their annual professional development goals. They're seeing that the group is growing, and adjusting their efforts.
"That's a big concern of ours," Cluff said. "It suddenly has a much bigger instructional impact."
A main goal for the schools is to keep daily life as normal as possible for the students.
"We have always had some families who struggle," Rushe said. "When a recession hits, it affects everything."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.