Child poverty rates highlight need for wraparound support

2019-01-13 | Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

Jan. 13--In the face of widespread poverty and insufficient state funding for public schools, local districts are turning to federal dollars and to community involvement to provide wraparound support that helps maximize the academic potential for all students. That's where programs like the one organized by the Houlka students become so valuable.

Estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau from 2017 reveal high numbers of students in Northeast Mississippi's school districts live in poverty. As Josh Mitchell from Corinth Today reported last week, 23 of the region's 30 school districts have poverty rates of 20 percent or higher for children between the ages of 5 and 17.

Through services such as such free meals, take-home food and toiletries, and early-childhood education, districts go beyond what is required by the Mississippi Department of Education in order to offer the basic necessities that every student needs to succeed.

The federal poverty line for 2017, which is based off yearly income, was $16,240 for a two-person household and increased by $4,180 for each additional household member. In Northeast Mississippi in 2017, eight of the 30 school districts, including Chickasaw County, had child poverty rates above 30 percent.

According to Feeding America, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating hunger, Mississippi's 24.4-percent rate of childhood food insecurity is the second highest in the nation behind New Mexico.

Similar to the programs at Houlka, the Wave Market at Tupelo Middle School offers snacks, toiletries and backpacks full of food for students in need to take home on the weekend.

"It's pretty straightforward," Houlka principal Anthony Golding said. "If a student is hungry while sitting in class, they're going to struggle to focus."

In addition to fighting hunger and improving hygiene, local school districts attempt to equalize the potential for academic success for poor students by using federal dollars to fund pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Mississippi does not offer universal pre-kindergarten in its public schools, but students who arrive at kindergarten without any classroom experience start school already behind their peers. A 2014 study at Stanford University showed that a child's vocabulary skills are linked to his or her economic background. By age 3, students from wealthy families hear as many as 30 million more words than children who grow up in poverty, according to a study by the University of Kansas from 2003.

Through federal Title I funding, which is distributed based off census poverty estimates, districts are able to offer pre-K to an extent. Small districts like Houlka with 475 students are able to offer pre-K to every 4-year-old. The Tupelo Public School District, which has around 7,000 students, is able to educate about half of its 4-year-old population at its Early Childhood Education Center.

Starting next school year, Booneville, which has 1,280 students, will use Title I funds to offer free pre-K based on need.

"Academically, it's hugely important to make sure the playing field is level or you're not going to break the poverty cycle," Booneville Superintendent Todd English said. "Poverty is a huge predictor of students' success or failure in school so the wraparound services are a necessity, especially when the work a student is supposed to do at home is above the grade level of their parents."

English said his district leans heavily on local churches to stock food pantries, pay an electric bill or donate clothes. With more funding, he would expand his staff to provide more individualized attention to students who need it the most.

"If we had increased school funding, the first thing we would do would be to hire a couple of more teachers at the elementary level in order to provide more personalized wraparound services," English said. "Because of the funding levels year after year, we have 25 to 29 kids in our elementary classes. It's much easier to identify academic and material weaknesses when you have 20 students instead of 29. Smaller class sizes are a wraparound service when you have one in four kids living in poverty."

dillon.mullan@journalinc.com Twitter: @DillonMullan