TAMPA — It was named for a war hero and built behind a pricey suburban shopping mall.
It has an orchestra, a band and this year, a chorus. It's had an "A" grade every year since it opened.
And, by one definition, Sgt. Smith Middle School is poor.
Smith and two charter schools are the latest in Hillsborough to join the growing ranks of the federal "Title 1" program.
Statewide, the number of Title I schools is up by 34 percent since 2006, according to data from the state Department of Education.
The label means more funding for teachers, materials and student services — more than $14 billion a year nationwide.
But it is also an indicator of hardship in a school's community.
"Our poverty has grown at a faster rate in the last couple of years compared to other communities across the country," said Jeff Eakins, director of federal programs for the Hillsborough County School District, which will receive $57 million in Title 1 funds this year.
The money comes into the districts according to census poverty rates, and then is allocated among schools according to how many children qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Participation in the meal program has risen sharply in Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Hillsborough counties since the recession began in 2007.
That trend could be related to a rise in food stamp use, now estimated to feed as many as one in six Floridians. A food stamp case number provides streamlined access to the school lunch program.
What's more, both programs are relatively discreet these days. Electronic debit transfer cards replaced paper stamps years ago in the supermarket. Cashless school lunch lines let kids get their food without fear of embarrassment.
"It's not like a green ticket and a black ticket," said Maria Kinzer, president of the Pinellas County Council of PTAs.
Along with increase in free lunches comes a growth in the number of Title 1 schools in all area counties except Hernando, which has held steady at 10.
Need, not results
Title 1 is, literally, an old school program, dating back to 1965. It is "formula-funded," meaning it is tied to need, unlike modern education efforts that reward a school's performance.
The assumption behind Title 1, backed up by research, is that schools with high poverty rates have a hard time maintaining academic standards.
"It's like running a 100-yard dash, and we have some children who are starting 20 yards behind the starting line," Eakins tells people who aren't sold on the concept. "Title 1 funds are put in play to help them catch up those 20 yards before they graduate."
The program's effectiveness can be hard to measure, as some of the money is used to help individual underachieving students. As those students improve, they are replaced by others, creating a permanent achievement gap.
Overall, researchers for the Center on Education Policy found that between 2002 and 2009, there was a narrowing of the achievement gap between Title 1 schools and those outside the Title 1 system.
With few exceptions, school districts must spend their Title 1 dollars at all schools where at least 75 percent of kids are on the subsidized lunch program. And those schools with the highest poverty rates must get the highest per-pupil amounts.
What principals do with the money depends on what they've requested in their school improvement plans, Eakins said.
Sometimes it buys equipment. It might pay reading coaches and dropout prevention counselors. And some of it has to go to tutoring at schools that did not pass the federal government's annual yearly progress test.
In Pasco County, Title 1 has funded a popular environmental science camp for three straight summers. At Spring Hill Elementary School in Hernando County, families can check out books, games and tutoring materials at a family center.
Pinellas County's situation is somewhat unusual, in that the district last year changed its program to give some money to middle and high schools instead of spending all of it at elementary schools.
Kinzer said she knows of one elementary school that missed the mark because it fell just below the threshold of students in the lunch program.
In situations such as these, she said, "the PTAs are helping get the word out to fill those (lunch) forms out even if you think you don't qualify," Kinzer said. Not only is participation anonymous at school; in Pinellas the form can be completed online.
"Fill it out," Kinzer said. "It's not something to be ashamed of."
Nor is the Title 1 designation, she said. "Anything that can help children in a positive way, that should never have a stigma attached to it."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]