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Joblessness adds to burden on D.C. area schools

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By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 27, 2009

Schools throughout the Washington area are feeding an unprecedented number of poor students as unemployment continues to rise.

One in four students in Fairfax County qualifies for free or reduced-price meals this fall, up from one in five three years ago. In Montgomery County, 29 percent of students were deemed eligible for meal subsidies in October, up from 26 percent in October 2007. In Prince William County, the eligibility rate increased from 29 to 33 percent, and in Prince George's County, from 46 to 52 percent.

As the lunchroom poverty barometer rises, schools are solidifying their role as centers for social services.

"If basic needs are not met, children cannot learn," said Karen Thompson, a guidance counselor at Guilford Elementary School in Sterling. "If we have children coming to school hungry, that is our first concern. We also have to make sure they have shoes, warm clothing. Have they slept? Do they have a place to live?"

Although poverty rates increased only slightly in Loudoun County in the past year, the rate at Guilford Elementary, in a working-class neighborhood near the Fairfax border, rose sharply, to about 68 percent, Principal David Stewart said.

Many parents who work as housecleaners, construction workers or landscapers have lost their jobs, or their hours have been cut. The school and the community have responded.

Guilford officials always keep a supply of winter coats to give to children in need. But this year, they also have dozens of pairs of shoes donated by a shoe store.

At Guilford and scores of other schools in the region, churches and charities are donating backpacks or providing boxes of food for children to take home on Fridays so that they will have something to eat over the weekend.

School social workers and guidance counselors said they are seeing more anxiety, less focus and more absenteeism as students go through stressful changes at home. More students are homeless or staying with friends or extended family.

Susan Elman, program manager for social work services in Fairfax schools, said students can become "school-phobic," afraid to spend long hours away from home in case something bad happens while they are gone.

As poverty rates escalate, many school systems are also dealing with the most severe revenue shortfalls in more than a generation. School boards are likely to face proposals to cut teachers, social workers or counselors to balance their budgets.

Dianna Sosa, a social worker at Hutchinson Elementary in Herndon, said the effects of increased unemployment are clear there. More students at the Fairfax school are being referred to her office because of non-academic concerns, and she is meeting with more families to connect them with emergency housing or other services. "It's a really stressful time," she said.

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