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Ohanian Comment; The fact that 45% of Florida's school children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch tells us a whole lot about what their families need to improve their children's achievement: Higher wages. Money in the pocket.

Federal policy declares public schools failures and pushes the country into a two-tier school system: public school for the poor and private school for the middle and upper classes.

KISSIMMEE -- In the two decades Gabrielle Miller has been teaching at Boggy Creek Elementary School, she has watched her students getting steadily poorer.

Today, three out of four students at Boggy Creek are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals in the federal school-lunch program -- a widely accepted measurement of poverty. That's way up from 1997, when only 13 percent qualified.

Statewide, 45 percent of public-school children -- about 1.2 million -- qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches, a number that swelled by 261,500 during the past decade, a state study has found.

Numbers of poor schoolchildren are up in all counties in Central Florida, but three counties in particular -- Osceola, Polk and Seminole -- also have seen significant jumps in the percentages of children who are considered poor.

School districts nationwide have long struggled with poverty. In Florida, the challenge is growing at the same time the federal government is asking more of the schools that serve the poorest and hardest-to-reach kids.

More children are qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches because of a struggling state economy that has kept wages stagnant and forced some families to take lower-paying jobs, said economist Mark Soskin of the University of Central Florida.

Many new immigrants to the area are Hispanic families that typically are poorer than many residents already here. And as poor families enroll their children in the public schools, some wealthier families have turned to private or home schools, Soskin said.

Elsa Menendez moved to Osceola County from California with her husband, son and daughter several months ago. While both parents looked for work, their children ate free breakfasts and lunches at Boggy Creek.

Menendez said it was big help. If she had had to pay for the meals, "That would be $3 a day," she said. "Over a week, imagine."

Osceola County, home to Boggy Creek Elementary, has seen the percentage of children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches grow from 41 percent in 1994-95 to 52 percent this past school year, state records show. In Polk County, the percentage grew from 50 percent to 55 percent in the same period. In Seminole, one of Florida's wealthier counties, the percentage rose from 25 percent to 29 percent.

In those three counties alone, that amounts to 87,681 poor children -- an increase of 28,537 in that time period.

Having more poor children in schools means that teachers have to work harder to boost academic skills because poor children often arrive less-prepared to learn than their better-off peers, said Richard Allington, a University of Florida education professor.

Schools serving a lot of poor families also have to help with a variety of other needs -- health care, nutrition and mental-health counseling, for example. It's tough to focus on math and reading, Allington said, when kids are sick or more focused on problems at home.

"Each child has a different set of needs, but the children who come from economically disadvantaged families bring some special issues with them to school," he said. "I think our schools tend to try to address all of those issue as well as they can."

At Boggy Creek, the increasing numbers of poor children means that it takes Miller's first-graders longer to get through activities as simple as reading fairy tales, she said. Because poor children typically don't know as many words as children from wealthier families -- they aren't read to as often and don't get to visit as many places -- Miller has to teach children new words and ideas before she can even crack a book.

And lot of families of children in her class cannot afford field trips, so it's up to Miller to introduce hands-on learning experiences in class.

It used to be frustrating but not anymore, Miller said.

"You get kids walking in and they're not all walking in with the same plate full, and you do the best you can from the time they walk in until the time they walk out," Miller said.

Schools that serve a lot of poor children qualify for extra money under a federal program known as Title I. It can be used to pay for extra services such as after-school tutoring, more teachers to cut class sizes and additional reading materials.

These days, however, the money comes with strings. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which aims to boost the performance of poor, disabled and minority children, Title I schools that fail to show adequate improvement can lose control over how that money is spent.

They can be compelled to use some of it to send their students to better public schools -- several hundred under-performing schools in Central Florida were required this year to offer transfers to their students. In future years, struggling Title I schools could be required to spend some of it on private tutoring or even fire their principals.

Linda Harwood, principal at Kissimmee's Highlands Elementary, where about 76 percent of kids qualified for free or reduced-price lunches in 2003-04, said it is frustrating to miss the mark set by the federal law when students are working hard.

"You see students who are learning, but they're not meeting the expectations that someone has set for your school," she said. "Some of the kids will make a year and a half of growth and still not be where they need to be," she said.

State Rep. Frank Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, said rising standards help keep Title I schools moving in the right direction. A tougher state accountability system has helped improve school test scores, and similar pressure from No Child Left Behind could encourage the same kinds of gains, he said.

"I think what we need to be doing is looking at what we're doing in education for the child and not what we are doing for the system," Attkisson said.

UF's Allington wonders, however, whether the rising poverty numbers suggest that the middle class, disgusted by constant criticism of the public schools, may finally be abandoning them in favor of private schools.

"I think the outrage is that Florida is moving quickly toward this two-tier system of an underfunded but heavily regulated public-education system and underregulated, pretty much nonregulated private schools for the middle class," he said.

Statewide, the number of Title I schools grew by more than 150 between the 2001-02 and 2003-04 school years, according to the state. This number may have been higher if some districts, worried about how those federal rules would affect their schools, had not started cutting their numbers of Title I schools.

Orange County, for example, began restricting Title I money to schools where at least 75 percent of enrollment is poor. That allowed Orange to concentrate its Title I money -- about $34 million this year -- on the district's 50 neediest schools.

But it meant a budget cut of about $150,000 to $175,000 for Dover Shores Elementary, where 60 percent to 65 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Principal Irma Moss said she had to cut back on clerical workers and teachers aides so the school could maintain its education programs.

Allington predicted that as districts become increasingly frustrated with federal rules, more will reduce their numbers of Title I schools. Some may eventually forgo the funding completely.

But it will be a tough choice. Harwood said it would be difficult to do without the $180,000 in Title I money Highlands Elementary got this year to hire teachers aides who could provide extra reading help.

Some of the money helps pay for a computer lab where programs help bolster basic skills.

"I need those positions, and I need that computer lab. All of them are effective in helping students to learn," she said.

— Denise-Marie Balona
Orlando Sentinel


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