RICHLAND — Richland school officials and local nonprofits are working together to help kids overcome the effects of poverty.
The percentage of Richland School District students qualifying for free or reduced price meals was at 30 percent in 2011, up from 19 percent in 2006, The Tri-City Herald reported in Sunday’s newspaper.
A dip in reading and math test scores has accompanied the increase in low-income students.
So schools and nonprofits are trying to give kids a variety of assistance, from hunger to homework help.
“Schools cannot serve these children alone,” said Karen Weakley, a consultant with Educational Service District 123, in an email to the Herald. She works with schools to help teachers understand the needs and challenges of low-income students.
Low-income students face a number of challenges because of their families’ financial situation, officials said. They may not have a place in their home to do homework, or they might not have a permanent home at all. Meals may not be consistent. The kids might not always have an adult they can rely on.
“They don’t know where they’re going to be that night; they don’t know how they’re going to eat,” said Rick Donahoe, a Richland School Board member, during a recent board meeting. “Learning isn’t their top priority.”
Richland school officials have taken several approaches to tackle the issues holding back low-income students.
New students are tested to determine their educational needs so they can get academic assistance, if needed.
Administrators work with families to see if children need other services, such as Medicaid. Hansen said schools schedule teacher conference times outside traditional working hours, making it easier for some parents to attend.
“Children in poverty need resources beyond pencils and paper,” Weakley said. “They need access to role models within their school and community who believe they can succeed.”
West Side Church in Richland has stepped in to provide this support to Marcus Whitman students. And Jason Lee Elementary School paired up with a neighboring church.
Phyllis Strickler, a Richland School Board member and the program coordinator at West Side Church, said any student needing academic assistance is welcome at the church’s morning homework and breakfast sessions.
Marcus Whitman counselor Jack Williams said West Side Church also provides other assistance for students.
A kindergartner was missing class regularly one winter, he said. The mother, a single parent on a fixed income, was pregnant and had another child at home. Those issues made her unable to get her child to school, Williams said.
A church volunteer offered to pick the kindergartner up each day.
“This mom can’t believe her luck,” Williams said. “Her daughter gets to come to school, and she’s not burdened by the fact she’s missing days.”
Districtwide, test scores are starting to bounce back, although they remain lower than in 2006.
Mike Hansen, assistant superintendent in Richland, said the achievement gap has narrowed, but it still needs attention. Schools such as Marcus Whitman have benefited because of community help, but schools still need volunteers, even if it’s reading to a student for a half-hour a week.