News

Data shows rise in low-income families at York Co. schools

Written by Angie Mason, York Daily Record | Jun 14, 2016 9:10 AM

When bills come rolling in, Rosanna Drayer has decisions to make.

The single mother of three, who works 40 hours a week, can't pay all of her bills in full. She makes sure the rent, car payment and insurance are paid up, but the rest get whatever she can afford each month. If she pays at least something to the electric company, her power won't be shut off, she said. Her mom helps by paying her cellphone bill.

Drayer, 33, works as a personal care assistant in a nursing home, making almost $11 an hour. Her income alone supports the family, who live in Monaghan Township.

It's hard. I was thinking about getting another job," she said. But her work is mentally and physically exhausting, and she comes home each day to cook dinner and taxi kids to baseball practice and activities. "I don't even know when I'd fit it in."

Drayer is part of a growing population in York County: families, many of them working, who struggle to make ends meet. It means more children might go to school hungry or worried about other basic needs at home. It can affect how they learn and what schools have to do to help them.

Drayer's kids qualify for free meals at school through the federal school lunch program, which she says is a source of relief during the school year. Paying the full $2 or so, or the reduced lunch price of 40 cents, would add up quickly for three kids.

She tells herself God must want her to live this way for some reason.

"He doesn't give you more than you can handle," she said.

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Students wait in line to receive breakfast on the last day of school at York Haven Elementary in the Northeastern School District. Some school officials said they see more kids relying on school for breakfast, as the number of students qualifying for free and reduced price meals has grown all around York County. (Photo: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record)

A growing trend

The estimate of children eligible for the free and reduced lunch program in schools is often used as a rough indicator of poverty in a community, though the numbers provide just a slice of that picture.

In York County, the York City School District has long dealt with concentrated poverty. Its rate is so high that in recent years, the district qualified for a federal program that gives all the district children free breakfast and lunch, without families having to fill out the paperwork.

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But districts all around the county are seeing more struggling families than they did years ago.

A decade ago, most districts in the county -- 13 -- had free/reduced lunch rates of 25 percent or lower.

For the school year that just ended, only one district -- Southern York -- remained below 25 percent. Every district has seen its percentage of qualifying families increase by double digits in the past 10 years. That means, for example, that one in four children qualified in South Eastern School District, up to 2.5 in four children in the Hanover Public School District.

There could be more awareness driving families to sign up, and there have been improvements in systems that automatically qualify some children, like those who receive food stamps, for the program. But several school officials said they think numbers could be even higher, if all the families that could qualify actually applied.

Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, said poverty rates nationwide have been headed in the wrong direction since about 2000. While the economy has been recovering, the recession of 2008 was "just a very deep recession," he said, one that will require a long recovery. Unemployment is falling, but there are still fewer people in the prime working age group -- 25 to 55 -- who have jobs.

Wage and income trends haven't recovered either, he said. Prices haven't been rising a lot, but they have still been rising faster than income. So even those working steady jobs might still have tighter budgets.

"It takes time to climb our way out of the hole and we're still on that climb," Price said.

The county school districts don't have near the concentrated poverty that the York City district does -- 51 percent of children 18 and younger were living below the poverty level in 2014, according to the U.S. Census. The district was at 88 percent free and reduced lunch eligibility in 2013-14, before the service was extended to all students. But the county districts are hearing more stories that would be familiar in the city: students who rely on school for meals, families who move in with relatives when they can't make rent, or siblings who act as surrogate parents when mom and dad are still working.

West York Area School District Supt. Emilie Lonardi recalled that when she was a young superintendent, Jack Van Newkirk, who served as York City's superintendent from 1981 to 2001, offered a prediction of sorts for surrounding districts.

"He'd say whatever would happen in the city, it's going to happen to you guys next," Lonardi said. "He (was) absolutely right."

What's it mean for schools and families?

In 2011, Sue Howe, a counselor at York Haven Elementary School, was hearing from more families who needed resources like food. So she started a weekend food program for students in need. Residents of a local senior home helped stuff backpacks with food to send home each Friday.

Since then, the effort has spread to all of Northeastern's elementary schools and one intermediate school. In 2015-16, more than 200 families -- an estimated 500 children -- were served.

It's one of the ways the school tries to lessen the gap between the haves and the have-nots, she said.

Howe invites students to "shop" her Halloween costumes in the fall, or reminds them that she'll have Valentines they can hand out. She tries to make it fun, and offer tactfully, so students aren't made to feel different.

As a counselor, she finds herself referring more students and families to other agencies for resources beyond food. It's about addressing those needs so a child can function in school.

"That's the bottom line for me," she said. "Anything I can do to help that child in school."

Several school officials with rising numbers of low-income families said that they find their districts having to provide more services that fall outside of education.

Lonardi, in West York, said that when she started, they never talked about a homeless student. Now there are several. Hardly any students used to eat breakfast at school, but now she thinks there are many who rely on it. The district is much more in tune with county and local agencies that provide services to children.

Counseling staff are more taxed, she said, and spend more time dealing with crisis issues and less on academic issues.

"Truth is, if you had the money, you could probably double your counseling services in schools, and everyone would be busy," she said, adding that students just need "a more solid support system when they come to school."

On a recent afternoon, Tammy Grove, the Red Lion Area School District's Project Pride coordinator, stood before a roomful of church pastors, social service agency leaders and school personnel at Mazie Gable Elementary School.

Each person received a small slip of paper, listing the free and reduced lunch percentages for each of Red Lion's schools. A table nearby held items like canned goods, extra shoes, lice treatment and alarm clocks. They're items Grove likes to have on hand, because they can make the difference in making sure a student comes to school -- which, for many, is a safe haven.

Part of Grove's job is to help students get the resources they need outside school, and she called the meeting to make sure schools are connecting with agencies on what those needs are. She's working to compile a guide so school staff members know which organizations can address students' needs.

"Our major role, our responsibility, is educating kids," she said. But if they're hungry, they can't learn. "That's why I think we need to as a community look at all the different resources out there and services."

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Krysta Tyson, a nurse at Mazie Gable Elementary, treats a student in the Red Lion Area School District. Tyson and other nurses said they wear a lot of hats as they work to address a host of student needs, from health to hunger. School districts all around York County have seen growing numbers of low-income children. (Photo: Jason Plotkin, York Daily Record)

Meeting a variety of needs

School nurses in the Red Lion district said they're wearing more hats these days. They might tuck food into a student's backpack, or let a student do their morning routine, like brush their teeth, in the nurse's office. They're handing out toiletries, taking laundry home for students and handing out snacks, in addition to trying to arrange vouchers for eye exams.

"If you don't have a healthy kid, you're not going to have a good learner," said Krysta Tyson, a school nurse for Mazie Gable Elementary School. But it can be hard for families, who want to maintain pride. "You have to establish that trusting relationship first."

Jack Warntz, one of the attendees at Red Lion's meeting, has been running the Grace Lutheran Food Pantry in Red Lion since 2004 and was helping with it long before that.

He knows there are more struggling families around. In 2004, the pantry filled 335 food orders. In 2015, it filled 1,628. Each year, it seems, the number climbs, and he tries to keep up.

"There's not the jobs out there that they can sustain their family making minimum wage. There's no way on this earth ... if you have a couple kids, no way you're going to survive on minimum wage," Warntz said.

Toni Reiser is going to school and working two jobs to keep her family afloat.

She and her three kids moved in with her fiance's parents in Wrightsville when a difficult pregnancy forced Reiser to stop working temporarily. Fiance Ryan Burns is in the military and even with his help, she couldn't keep up with the more than $1,000-a-month rent.

Now, the baby is 9 months old, and Reiser works at a farm and at a livestock auction in Lancaster County. She had worked at Home Depot, too, but left when limits on the part-time hours made it not worth the time.

She receives child care assistance for her baby to be in day care, but she's on a months-long waiting list for assistance for her older children to receive before- and after-school care. She relies on neighbors and her mother-in-law to help see them on and off the school bus and care for them until she's home. The kids receive free lunch at school.

She takes classes each morning, five days a week, at YTI Career Institute, where she studies medical billing and coding. She hopes the field will provide a job wherever her family might land once she and Burns marry. Jobs start at $13 or $14 an hour, she said.

"I need something ... steady money coming in so I know where I'm going to land," she said.

Dana James has been teaching at West York Area High School for 23 years and said she can see "drastic differences" between now and when she started. One is that she sees more students moving into and out of the district.

She used to have a lot of students who'd been in West York schools their entire lives. Now, she has more students who've been in two or three school districts.

"I think the economic issues have caused people to move around a lot. We have to constantly be aware of what a child's background is so we have an idea of what we need to do to help them," she said.

Teachers have to figure out where a student is academically when he or she arrives, and they have to adjust instruction to meet each student.

"Teaching is one of those things, we're always trying to meet the needs of the learner," James said. "We see a bigger variety of needs now."

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Volunteers Alice Newcomer, left, and Dottie Trotta, both of Windsor Township, pack meals for kids at the Red Lion Community Services building, in Red Lion, for the Kids' Kafe program. The program sends food home with children once a week during the summer. Some schools said that as the number of children qualifying for free and reduced price lunch has grown, they've begun to work more closely with agencies that help families. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)

Looking ahead

The percentage of families qualifying for free and reduced lunches in the U.S. hit 51 percent in 2012-13, according to the Southern Education Foundation. Pennsylvania hit 50 percent in 2015-16 for public school students.

One of the consistent findings in research is that higher concentrations of low-income students lead to lower school performance, said John Sludden, a researcher with the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University's Teachers College.

What's driving that is up for debate, he said. But part of the challenge for schools is that a lot of causes happen outside of school. Poverty has associations with health, brain development, and learning, even at the earliest stages. Children from higher income families are simply exposed to more words and books, which can lead to gaps in literacy when a student starts school.

Sludden's organization pushes for a comprehensive approach to education. That means early childhood education, more attention to child health, after-school programs and family supports.

"We view it here as a right, that states should be providing these sorts of supports," he said. "Education is essential in the current climate. There needs to be more attention paid to the myriad ways poverty impacts student development."

During a recent visit to William Penn Senior High School in York, state education Secretary Pedro Rivera said food security has become a significant agenda item for Gov. Tom Wolf. Rivera said it's something several departments -- agriculture, human services, education -- have to address.

Increasing basic education funding as Wolf has pushed would give school districts more money that they could align to their needs, he said.

Raymond March, principal at York Haven, said the school has the highest free and reduced lunch percentage -- 57 percent in 2015-16 -- in the Northeastern district. It means some students can come to school a little further behind their more affluent peers. A few years ago, budget constraints meant the district lost some specialists who worked with those students.

"When we lost them, we could tell," he said. In recent years the district was able to restore a behavior specialist and learning support teacher, which has helped.

March came to York Haven from a school with a higher poverty rate -- up in the 90 percent range. So he knows what will happen if York Haven's climbs higher.

"The need becomes greater for everything. We need more education, which would (mean) in my mind smaller class sizes, more teachers," he said. There would be a need for more interventions, for students who come to school behind.

Lonardi, in West York, suggested that the free and reduced numbers there appeared to have leveled, at 50 percent, so maybe this is the district's "new place."

While it's been alarming to watch the numbers climb over the years, she said, it's done so gradually, and teachers have been able to adjust over time.

March said schools have taken on a lot of "society's ills" in recent years. And they'll be teaching children, regardless of their circumstances, and even when it means more than reading and writing.

"We worry about the entire kid and not just school subjects," he said.

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Cafeteria worker Cierra Noaker sets out breakfast cereals on the last day of school at York Haven Elementary School in the Northeastern School District. More families in York County qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Some school officials said they are doing more to meet students' needs outside of the classroom. (Photo: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record)

Free/reduced lunch by the numbers

$31,525 -- Annual wage limit for a family of four to qualify for free lunch (130 percent of poverty)

$44,863 -- Annual wage limit for a family of four to qualify for reduced price school lunch (185 percent of poverty)

$24,250 -- Federal poverty line for a family of four

The formula for determining income limits for the free and reduced lunch program has not changed over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program. 

The National Center for Education Statistics cautions that while free and reduced lunch numbers can offer information about relative poverty, it should not be confused with actual poverty rates. In 2012, more than half of students in the U.S. were eligible for free and reduced lunch while the poverty rate, as measured in the U.S. Census, was at 22 percent, the center said in a blog entry.

The free and reduced lunch rate is more readily available than the poverty rate, and does offer useful information since the eligibility requirements are related to the poverty line, the blog entry says.

Summer meals

Children 18 and younger can get free lunches through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's summer meal program.

"USDA has been committed to closing the food insecurity gap that occurs in the summer months when children no longer have access to the nutritious meals they're offered in school," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. In 2015, 190 million meals were served at 66,000 sites nationwide. 

Sites typically include some schools and churches. A full listing is not yet available, but will be available online at www.fns.usda.gov/summerfoodrocks. Families can also find sites by calling 1-866-348-6479 (English) or 1-877-842-6273 (Spanish) or texting FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877, the news release says.

Central York School District will offer lunches from noon to 1 p.m., Mondays through Thursdays, starting June 13 and running through Aug. 4. The lunches will be served in the Hayshire Elementary School gymnasium. Call 846-6789 ext. 1209 for more information.

West Shore School District will offer lunches Mondays through Thursdays, June 13 to Aug. 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Washington Heights Elementary and Cedar Cliff High School. York City School District will have a site at Hannah Penn K-8 School.

Central Pennsylvania Food Bank will offer children free lunches at several sites. Starting June 13, lunches will be offered at Harvest of Blessing, from noon to 1 p.m., Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays, and at Martin Library, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

Starting June 27, Salvation Army will offer breakfast from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. and lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 12: 15 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.

This article is part of a content-sharing partnership between York Daily Record and WITF. 

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