Brattleboro Reformer, February 27, 2008: Child poverty spikes in area

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Wednesday, February 27

BRATTLEBORO — Child poverty rates inched up in many Windham County schools this year, according to data released by the Vermont Department of Education, Tuesday.

The department released its annual report of students eligible for free and reduced price meals for the 2007-08 school year.

The free and reduced rate is generally accepted as an indicator of poverty for families in the districts.

Across the state, the average eligibility rate remained about the same, with 30.87 percent registering this year and 29.2 percent in 2007.

But in Brattleboro and Rockingham, the county’s largest districts, the percentage of children receiving free or reduced meals this year went up.

Last year, the Brattleboro schools showed a rate of 43.09 percent, while 46.50 percent enrolled this year.

When the St. Michael’s School, which has a relatively small rate, is taken out of the Brattleboro average, the 2008 rate is about 55 percent.

And in Rockingham, the percentage of children in the federal meals program rose from 37.34 percent in 2007 to 41.46 percent this year.

The annual report is gathered each year to provide the U.S. Department of Agriculture


with statistics on how many Vermont families are receiving help for their school meals.

But with an increased focus on how children in poverty are performing on standardized tests, and studies showing a correlation between poverty and behavior issues, educators point to the annual free and reduced report as an indication of the challenges facing the schools every year.

“Kids are coming from families that don’t have the resources that other families have, and many of them are entering the system not ready to learn,” said Windham Southeast superintendent Ron Stahley.

Stahley was quick to point out that children living in poverty do not always score lower on tests or present more behavior challenges.

But every year when test results are released, both from local schools and from across the state, the children from low socio-economic backgrounds show test scores far below the state average.

“We have been developing our annual goals around closing that achievement gap,” Stahley said. “We have been dedicating resources to improving the achievement of low performing students.”

The district has been experimenting with programs that extend beyond the classroom, according to Stahley.

Parenting classes are offered to help struggling families become more involved with their children’s school and before- and after-school programs are being offered at more area schools to give parents a little more help making it though the day.

“We clearly understand the challenge single parents have in raising kids,” he said. “Kids in poverty can’t learn when they have obstacles students with means don’t have.”

Students on the federal free and reduced meals program are required to fill out an application.

To be eligible for free meals, a family’s income must be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. Families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line qualify for reduced meals.

Joanne Heidkamp, the program director for the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger, said the federal free and reduced meals data tend to be accurate indications of how families are doing in a region.

“It is a general belief that most of the kids who are eligible are actually signing up,” she said. “In a sense, it is a crude annual measure of what poverty is doing in a community.”

It is hard to tell exactly what is causing the numbers to spike, she said.

When families from middle and high income brackets move into a town, that will make the free and reduced number go down.

And when poor families move in to a town, the number goes up.

But if child counts are steady or going down, as they are at most schools in Windham County, rising poverty numbers usually mean that the families that are in an area are having a harder time making ends meet.

A rising number of children who are enrolled in the program is not necessarily a bad thing, Heidkamp said.

It does mean that more children are getting nutritious meals who might otherwise be going hungry.

Another federal number, the annual census count for families that have very low food security, shows that Vermont saw the sharpest rise in the number of households that are not able to provide nutritious meals on a daily basis.

In 2000, 1.8 percent of the state’s families could not feed themselves.

That number over the last few years jumped to 4.3 percent. The national rate is 3.9 percent.

“It means people are losing their jobs, or losing their second jobs. People are struggling,” Heidkamp said. “It’s not a bad thing that kids are eating free and reduced meals, but it is an indicator of how the economy is doing.”

The complete free and reduced meals report is on the education department’s Web site: Click on “What’s new.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.

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