Rising poverty brings new challenges to Pasco schools

LAND O'LAKES — For much of its eight-year existence, Pine View Elementary School has served a solidly middle class community.

As unemployment and foreclosures have risen, however, the school has seen economic hardships hit its families, too.

Requests for assistance from Pine View's Assist Believe Care (ABC) program have spiked. Parents' ability to pay for field trips has waned. The school now keeps a fully stocked closet of clothing and classroom supplies, something never considered a necessity before.

"We don't let any child go without," principal Judy Cosh said.

Just three years ago, Pine View Elementary had 23.9 percent of its students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, a widely accepted indicator of poverty in schools. That ranked it ninth lowest among the Pasco County school district's 44 elementary schools.

By the end of October, the school had seen its free and reduced-price meal population increase to 41 percent, still below the district overall rate but now 14th lowest among elementary schools.

It was not alone in seeing its poverty rate rise. The percentages increased for almost every single school, with the district rate growing from 42.9 percent in September 2008 to 55 percent in October 2011.

This has occurred at the same time that the district has seen its funding decrease, placing a growing workload on smaller numbers of counselors, social workers and educators. One of the ways district leaders have seen the change manifest itself is in poorer attendance figures.

"As you get more families with greater economic need … sometimes their ability to stay focused on education and maintain the resources they need for the family tends to fall off," said David Chamberlain, district student services supervisor.

Many schools seeing these increases are accustomed to dealing with poverty, district Title I supervisor Elena Garcia said.

They have what's considered "generational" poverty as opposed to "situational" poverty.

The former is long-standing, Garcia explained, and schools have special programs and training in place to deal with the culture that accompanies it. The latter, by contrast, is often temporary, and requires a different approach.

"But they do have a whole slew of day-to-day needs," she acknowledged.

Pine View has seen those increase.

It has attempted to meet the needs transparently, Cosh said, doing such things as reducing its list of requested classroom supplies and scaling back its field trip plans. The school has been lucky, assistant principal Traci Hemingway said, in that families that have not struggled yet have come forward to support those who have.

"The other members of our community are stepping up," Hemingway said.

The school also has sharpened its focus on addressing all academic needs in the classroom — recognizing that a growing number of factors are causing students to struggle.

"We work collaboratively together, planning lessons to help the students meet their potential" regardless of home situation, first-grade teacher Tina Porche said. "We do a lot of problem solving together."

Porche, who has worked at the school since it has opened, said she was aware that some students might need some added support. She was surprised, though, to learn that the school's poverty level had increased by as much as it has.

"I haven't seen much," she said.

One key, Cosh said, is that the school has seen relatively low turnover of students and teachers — providing continuity in the classroom.

Pine View has earned A's in the state grading system every year despite its demographic changes.

Deer Park Elementary School, which faced many of the same challenges, has not been so lucky.

The school saw its free and reduced-price meal eligibility rise from 25 percent in September 2008 to 44.9 percent in October 2011. Over that same period of time, the school, which serves a typically well-off community of New Port Richey, saw its state grade drop from an A to a C.

Principal Margie Polen said Deer Park has taken many steps to maintain an academic planning environment that takes into account all students' needs regardless of economics.

"What we find here at Deer Park is, even though our parent situations have changed, for the most part the parents are still working. They still value education," Polen said. "We are not seeing the drastic change as far as the numbers might suggest."

Still, assistant principal Mindy Predmore said, the school is anticipating growth in its ABC program. It is registering families for Toys for Tots for the first time this year, and is helping families communicate with agencies such as Metropolitan Ministries.

"We use our resources to meet the needs of all of our kids," Predmore said.

Schools that surpass 40 percent free and reduced-price meals can qualify for Title I federal funding for low-income students. In Pasco, though, the schools with higher levels of participation in the meal programs get that money, which is being spread more thinly as growing numbers of schools have increased poverty while the federal funds remain flat.

Most important, Garcia said, is to ensure that the educators in the schools have the desire and ability to teach children in poverty by not seeing the poverty and instead seeing the possibilities.

"We can't let it be a barrier," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

by the numbers

42.9 Percent of Pasco students who qualified for the free and reduced-price meal program September of 2008.

55 Percent of Pasco students who qualified for the free and reduced-price meal program in October 2011.

Rising poverty brings new challenges to Pasco schools 11/09/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 9, 2011 5:31pm]

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