Washington state's poorest schoolchildren often in rural areas

Posted: Wednesday, January 29, 2003

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) -- When schools need money to provide extra help for disadvantaged children who have fallen behind in reading or math, one place they can get it is from federal Title I funds.

''Boy, I could use the Title I bucks,'' said Bill Colter, superintendent of the little Sprague-Lamont School District, 40 miles east of Spokane.

''I've got a lot of kids who could use the reading and math help.''

In the 2003 federal budget, the U.S. Department of Education has proposed giving $11.3 billion in Title I grants to state education agencies, with Washington state expected to receive almost $154 million under the Bush administration plan.

Distribution of the money to local school districts will be based on 1999 poverty data estimates, released last month by the Census Bureau.

In Washington state, Colter's district might get some help because it led the list for the greatest increase in impoverished students, up nearly 600 percent between 1995 to 1999.

With only 72 students in grades K-5 and 41 students in grades 9-12 at Sprague School -- the sixth, seventh and eighth graders go to school in Lamont in Whitman County -- it doesn't take a lot of students to drive up the poverty percentages.

Among the reasons for the increase, Colter said, is an influx of low-income families to the Lincoln County farm town. Rents are cheaper in Sprague than in Spokane, and many who live here are laborers, farm or ranch workers, and college students commuting to Eastern Washington University.

Of eight new students enrolled in the last two weeks, six need the kind of special education assistance to bring them up to speed in class that Title I funds could provide, Colter said.

''I don't have the dollars to help them out in that area,'' he said.

''We haven't got Title I dollars for years, and we've been begging for them.''

The poorest areas of the state are typically rural places where adults earn their living farming, logging, mining and fishing. The work is often seasonal and the pay low.

''There's a long, long history of solid research that children from lower-income families do less well in school,'' said Richard Brandon, director of Washington Kids Count, a University of Washington research project dedicated to tracking the conditions of children and families in Washington and informing the public about their needs.

''Some of that has to do with the low education level of their parents. You can't change that, but you can make up for it.''

Children living in poverty are also more likely to have physical and dental problems because they lack health care. They are more likely to be hungry, and a disproportionate share of low-income families have only one parent, often a working single mother, he said.

''This area has always been impoverished,'' said Kathy Lorton, superintendent of the Queets-Clearwater School District on the Quinault Indian Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula.

In 1999, the data showed that more than 58 percent of the students there were considered impoverished.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' poverty threshold for a family of four in the continental United States was $17,650.

Another way districts gauge poverty levels is by the percentage of free and reduced-price lunches received by students. This year, all 45 students at the K-8 Queets-Clearwater Elementary School receive subsidized lunches, she said.

''Reservations do tend to have economic employment issues,'' she said. ''We aren't any different.''

While there are both state and federal programs to help equalize the quality of education in rich and poor districts, they're not enough, she said.

''We have a 25-year history of highly equalized education finance in Washington state, which gets everybody relatively equal spending,'' Brandon said. ''It's equal, but not a very high level, and it's degraded over time.''

Many of the programs that have been lost to shrinking budgets are the ones designed to help low-income students make up for economic disadvantages, he said.

Low-income students are often under a great deal of stress at home, which can translate into trouble at school.

''Whenever kids come to school with high stress levels, the learning decreases,'' Lorton said.

At Queets-Clearwater, children in grades K-3 often need extra help preparing for the years ahead.

''Kids aren't just a year behind -- a lot of times, they're 2-3 years behind, in reading, for example,'' Lorton said. ''We're trying to get kids caught up. Poverty is a factor.''

Tiny school districts need only a few poor students to show dramatic numbers. The 5,500-student Sunny-side School District with seven schools in the heart of the Yakima Valley's farm and dairy country is probably more representative of areas struggling with poverty.

Ruben Carrera, a spokesperson for the district, said about 76 percent of students come from low-income families, while the federal data from 1999 show more than 32 percent were classified as poor. One elementary school in the district has more than 89 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

''We definitely have our work cut out for us, as do many of the districts here in the valley, because of the correlation between low incomes and low test scores,'' Carrera said.

''However, we can make a difference. We make a difference in many of these kids through these special programs, supplemental programs.''

With Title I, the Sunnyside district is able to offer after-school programs, computer-assisted in-struction, reading assistance and extended-day kindergarten for students with limited English skills.

''We're always looking for new and better ways of serving all students, so that all students are on the same playing field,'' he said.

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