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Lunch Program Reflects Surge in Suburban PoorBy Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 2, 1996; Page A01
The number of low-income children in suburban Washington schools has doubled in the 1990s, figures from the federal school lunch program indicate, a surge that is placing new teaching demands on school systems already burdened with budget troubles.
In the dozen counties and cities closest to the District, the number of public school students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch increased from 72,571 in 1989-90 to 148,857 in 1995-96, a jump of 105 percent, while total student enrollment grew 17 percent.
Over the same period, the proportion of suburban students receiving the lunch benefit has nearly doubled. Almost one of every four students now gets a free or reduced-price lunch in the 12 suburban districts, compared with about one in eight students in 1990.
Children qualify for the lunches based on their family's income, and the subsidized meals are considered the best available indicator of the number of low-income students in a school district. A student in a family of four qualifies for a free lunch if the family's annual income is no higher than $20,280.
The sharp rise in lunches for low-income children coincides with other signs of the growth in suburban poverty in the region and across the country, demographers say. The number of suburban Washington households receiving food stamps, for example, has more than doubled since 1990.
The change is driven in part by the influx of immigrants drawn by the area's job growth. Demographers say other factors are the rise in single-parent households in the suburbs and the income drop of residents who switched jobs after corporate downsizings.
For educators, the trend has meant the shifting of millions of dollars in school spending to help students who lack basic reading, writing and math skills that suburban teachers took for granted only a decade ago. Low-income children often need extra help at school because their family lives are less stable, school officials say.
"Before, you could take a student and say, 'Read this and we'll talk about it.' You can't do that anymore," said Cathy Alifrangis, an assistant principal at Lake Anne Elementary School in Reston, where the percentage of children receiving the lunch benefits has increased from 7 percent to 34 percent in six years.
"There are kids who come to us who have never held a book," Alifrangis said. "We have children who are crying because they are hungry."
Suburban schools across the region are making changes in hundreds of classrooms to adapt, hiring more reading teachers, counselors and social workers, reducing class size in selected schools and instructing parents how to help children who perform below grade level.
In Fairfax County, Lake Anne Elementary is one of 51 "special need" schools that receive additional money for smaller classes and other services, based in part on the percentage of low-income students. Montgomery County schools are offering social services such as doctor's visits and family counseling.
Prince William County schools have started after-hours classes to teach parents how to help their children with homework. In Charles County, officials revamped the elementary reading program this year to place much greater emphasis on phonics, in part to help low-income students who could not read at grade level.
The impact of the changes goes beyond the classroom.
Local debates over education spending have become more contentious, as some taxpayers question the fairness of spending more on schools with high numbers of poor children while other schools are asked to maintain or cut costs.
Parents at Crestwood Elementary School in Springfield, for example, have complained that their children are in classes of 30 or more, while at least three nearby elementary schools have student-teacher ratios as low as 15 to 1 because of their special-need status.
"It is extremely out of control," said Julie Tritle, co-president of the Crestwood PTA. "My child, in a Fairfax County school, should get the same thing as any other child."
Some suburban school officials say they are worried about losing middle-class parents to private schools or other jurisdictions, which occurred in Alexandria and Arlington after their public schools received an influx of poor families and immigrants in the 1980s.
"We've got to continue those programs that are going to help poorer kids, immigrants, at-risk kids, so they are able to stay with our standards," said Fairfax School Board member Christian N. Braunlich (Lee), who represents the area where Crestwood Elementary is located. "But at the same time, we really should not shift the burden by increasing class sizes in schools filled with regular kids. . . . You've got to understand the growing concerns."
The increase in the number of poor children has occurred in both the inner and outer suburbs, according to an analysis of lunch program data provided by the Maryland and Virginia education departments.
In Montgomery, for example, 21 percent of students received lunch benefits last year, compared with 13 percent six years ago. In Fairfax, 17 percent get such benefits, compared with 9 percent six years ago, and in Prince William, 20 percent of students are getting free or low-cost lunches, up from 8 percent.
The other jurisdictions included in the computer-assisted analysis were Arlington, Loudoun, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Frederick and Howard counties and the City of Alexandria.
Officials in several of the school districts said they expect the increases to continue this school year, although such figures are not yet available.
The students getting free lunches come from families whose incomes are no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty line. That's $20,280 a year for a family of four, or about one-fourth of the estimated median income in Fairfax County.
Families qualifying for reduced-price lunches have incomes no higher than 185 percent of the poverty line, which is $28,860 a year for a four-person family. More than three-quarters of the suburban Washington children receiving lunch benefits qualify for the free meals.
In Fairfax, full-price school lunches cost $1.55 for elementary students, $1.65 for middle school and high school students. In Montgomery and Prince George's, the lunches cost $1.50 and $1.60. In all three counties, reduced-price lunches are 40 cents.
Enrolling children for the lunch subsidy became somewhat easier in the fall of 1991, when school districts everywhere began to automatically certify students whose families were on public assistance. But school officials say this change cannot account for the 105 percent jump the Washington suburbs recorded. Over the same six years, the nationwide increase in the number of children receiving the lunch benefits was 26 percent.
It is significant that the trend has paralleled the rise in food stamp cases in the D.C. suburbs, said Paul Siegel, a U.S. Census Bureau analyst. "Food stamps are the best generally available indicator of county-level poverty," Siegel said. "They offer independent confirmation of what you see in the school lunch data."
Nationwide, about one-fifth of suburban children under age 6 live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, which has just completed a study of the issue.
For suburban educators, the trend increases the pressure to raise the test scores of low-income children. In a reading test for Prince William fourth-graders during the 1994-1995 school year, for example, 32 percent of the students who qualified for lunch benefits scored in the bottom quarter, while only 6 percent of the other students scored at the bottom.
School officials attribute such gaps to a variety of factors. Low-income students move from school to school far more often than do other children, making it harder for teachers to know what they need to learn. And they receive less academic support from parents struggling to pay family bills.
Paul L. Vance, superintendent of Montgomery schools, said he also worries that they don't have the same access to technology as other children. "The highest level of technology in their household may be the remote control on their television," Vance said, adding that the school system has to make up the difference. "It's compensatory education, and we have to do that to close the gap."
But the extra spending on programs for poor students is occurring as school systems are struggling with tight budgets.
In Fairfax, officials delayed teacher raises last year and put off buying new buses this year because of funding shortfalls. At the same time, though, the county allocated $9 million to allow its 51 special-need schools to hire more teachers and other staff members, almost twice the amount such schools received in 1990.
Fairfax is spending an additional $4.8 million to reduce the pupil-teacher ratio in first-grade classes in poor neighborhoods, a program that didn't exist six years ago. And it has more than doubled, to $7.6 million, the amount budgeted for services to preschoolers from poor families.
Similarly, while Montgomery officials have increased the average class size and started charging an activities fee in high schools, they are spending $25 million on initiatives for low-income students, almost 50 percent more than in 1990.
In Prince William, where a lack of money has caused officials to put on hold plans to build new schools, the school system will target $6 million to help students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.
The growth in the number of poor suburban families will continue for the foreseeable future, predicted Harold Hodgkinson, director for the Center for Demographic Policy, a private nonprofit group in Washington.
"On any measure I have developed, what you now see is what you're going to get for the next 10 or 15 years," Hodgkinson said. "Poverty has moved out, just like everything else has."
William Casey, director of computer-assisted reporting, contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company