The number of children in Northwest Indiana from low-income families and eligible for free or reduced-price lunch has climbed in the region and across the state, as school districts face tighter budgets and reduced state funding. That problem is compounded for students in urban districts.
Students receiving free and reduced-price lunch — considered a key indicator of poverty — have increased by 48 percent in Lake County, and 116 percent in Porter County between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. School districts in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago have the highest number of students living at or below poverty.
The percentage of Lake students on free and reduced-price lunch in 2013 was 56.2 percent. In Porter County, 34.4 percent of students were on free and reduced-price lunch, and in LaPorte County, it was 53.7 percent of students.
A study by the National Center for Education Statistics in the mid-1980s indicated growing challenges to educating urban youths who increasingly have problems such as poverty, limited English proficiency, family instability and poor health.
The study said testimony and reports supported the perception that urban students flounder in decaying, violent environments with poor resources, teachers and curricula, and limited opportunities.
The statistics regarding children living in poverty have improved little nearly three decades later, but local educators said they are working to meet those challenges with a variety of interventions to help students and their families.
Gary Community School Corp. Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt said the district faces two challenges: meeting academic standards for creating 21st century schools and continuing to operate efficiently on a limited budget.
"While we are dedicated to offering a challenging curriculum, high-quality instruction and accountability for staff and students, we also acknowledge there has been an elephant in the room," she said.
She pointed to the 2012 U.S. Census report showing that 56 percent of Gary students live in households well below the country's median income level. Another 15 percent live at or just above the poverty level as defined by the federal government.
Pruitt said the Gary district also is committed to educating the largest population of special education students in the area, unlike private and charter schools that enroll, by choice, a limited number of students in need of special services.
She said poverty has always deeply affected achievement outcomes and graduation rates, largely attributed to the stress that comes with the uncertainties of living with unstable housing, food and family unity.
"We have had students who are living in a home where there is no power or heat during the winter months," Pruitt said.
"Situations like that often cause intrinsic motivation to learn taking a back seat to basic survival. Some students also rely on our food service as essential meals. Many children living in poverty face more health and nutritional issues that directly impact their cognitive skills in terms of being able to stay focused consistently."
Pruitt said while she does not offer that as an excuse for Gary schools or any urban school, she said those facts underscore the urgency to alleviate the effects of poverty on children, and help them receive a full range of educational and family services that complement one another to help students reach their potential.
Not only in Gary, but also across the U.S., the African-American graduation rate is 66 percent; that rate dips to 52 percent for black males. In Indiana, the black male graduation rate is 49 percent, which represents a 31 percent achievement gap when compared to white counterparts, Pruitt said. Gary’s graduation rate is 60.2 percent in four years and 67.5 percent in five years.
Pruitt said low-income families also tend to be more transient. Families living in poverty are less likely to be homeowners. As a result, children move from school to school, often falling behind academically.
The low home-ownership rate also negatively affects the tax base in Gary. Pruitt said the tax collection rate for schools in Gary averages about 42 percent. She said the capital-projects fund, used to renovate school buildings, has taken steep cuts as a result of the low tax collection and loss of resources to public charter schools and private schools in the form of vouchers.
In addition, Pruitt said most Gary schools are more than 40 years old, and the reduced capital-projects fund hurts the district's ability to repair buildings' roofing, heating/cooling systems and athletic facilities. Limited capital-project funding also hampers the district's ability to upgrade learning spaces and increase instructional technology.
Nevertheless, Pruitt said teachers and administrators work hard to partner with local agencies, assist students and parents, improve technology, provide individualized instruction and expose students to college tours, scholarship fairs and postsecondary certification.
Portage Township Schools Superintendent Ric Frataccia, whose district has in excess of 50 percent of its students on free and reduced-price lunch, said the school district does help students grow academically.
"We know students who come to us who live in poverty and are a bit behind," he said. "They grow as much as their counterparts who are nonpoverty students. But you have to remember — they started off behind. They also lose ground in the summer; it's a constant cycle. Those educators who can keep kids growing despite the cycle are heroes.
"They just don't have the same advantages as other kids, and there is more stress in the family with fewer resources. Some of these kids wonder if they will have food tomorrow, if their parents will have a job — or if the car will start."
Frataccia said the federal Title I funding program remains excellent, giving students extra time and resources in math and reading.
Lake Station schools Superintendent Dan DeHaven said some challenges in working with children who live in poverty have to do with the additional support that must be provided to them; 78 percent of students in his district receive free and reduced-price lunch.
"We do a lot of the basics with principals and teachers providing money out of their pocket for basics like clothes and shoes for our kids," DeHaven said. "Some of our kids are behind the 8-ball when they start and haven't touched a book until they get to school."
With 90 percent of the 600-plus student body at 21st Century Charter School in Gary on free and reduced-price lunch, Kevin Teasley, president of the Indianapolis-based GEO Foundation, which operates the charter school, noted myriad challenges.
He said there are families where both parents work and still don't have the means to take children on family vacations, and students "veg" in front of the television during the summer.
He said the charter school provides a six-week, full-day summer program concentrating on academics and field trips to places such as the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and Lake Michigan. Teasley noted many students have never been on a boat, much less to nearby Chicago.
Early education, staying in school critical
Lora Bailey, professor of early childhood education at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, said Indiana does not require kindergarten, and unless a parent can afford to fund at least two years of high-quality preschool for their child, they enroll in school not ready for school.
"Children from homes that are considered impoverished with low educational backgrounds tend to have vocabulary and oral language skills significantly less than a child whose family is not living in poverty," Bailey said.
"A child from a family with high educational attainment talks to a child using complex language skills frequently, thus children acquire oral language skills at an advanced rate," she said. "A child from an impoverished family lacks the same exposure. Access to high-quality preschool education bridges the gap."
Bailey commended programs such as Merrillville-based Geminus Headstart that provides early childhood education to families living in poverty. She also said it's important to build networks of support for families even before they reach the traditional classroom.
One other big issue is the number of students who are suspended, expelled or truant, said East Chicago Police Chief Mark Becker.
"Truancy is one of the major ills of this country," Becker said.
When students are not in school, crimes such as theft, vandalism and other property crimes go up, he said. He said a number of groups are trying to come up with the best way to deal with truancy issues.
"Kids are bored when they are not in school and not learning," Becker said. "They are prone to get into other issues. When they go back to school, they are behind, and they don't bother trying to catch up. They can't compete in the workforce, and it's a cycle that continues."
In East Chicago, about 98 percent of public school students receive free or reduced-priced lunch. In the 2003-04 school year, the district had an enrollment of 6,255 students. It has lost nearly 2,000 students in 10 years and now has an enrollment of 4,310 students. That 31 percent drop over a decade translates into a loss of $14.9 million for a district that is already strapped for cash.
Last month, residents and some private institutions took part in a panel discussion in East Chicago called Poverty in the Urban Community presented by the Twin City Ministerial Alliance.
Becker is working with the group, along with Calumet College of St. Joseph. He said they will specifically examine truancy, thanks to a grant from the Foundations of East Chicago, "focusing at the elementary level before students get involved in gangs and drugs."