Next year, John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School will lose its Title I status and the nearly $250,000 attached to it, after Baltimore City Schools changed the method of determining poverty. Officials acknowledge the new formula undercounts children from immigrant families. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Four years ago, more than 90 percent of students at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School were identified as poor.

This staggering poverty rate meant the federal government provided the Southeast Baltimore school with free fresh fruits and vegetables for schoolkids. New teachers could qualify for special loan forgiveness, and a bevy of grants were accessible. Perhaps most important, Ruhrah qualified for Title I, a federal program that directs resources to poor schools.

Next year, Ruhrah will lose its Title I status and the nearly $250,000 attached to it. The district’s method of determining poverty — which officials acknowledge undercounts children from immigrant families — considers only 32 percent of the school’s students poor.

More than half of Ruhrah’s roughly 850 students speak English as a second language, a proxy for measuring the immigrant population. This means they aren’t all being captured within the school’s count of low-income students.

“I know the poverty is still there,” Principal Mary Donnelly said. “It’s just not being identified.”

School districts historically used eligibility for free and reduced-price meals as a proxy for poverty. Families would turn in paperwork outlining their income and need for food assistance. If a student qualified to receive a free or reduced-price lunch, the student was identified as poor. Most districts in Maryland still use this approach.

But in 2015, Baltimore joined the federal universal free lunch and breakfast program. The shift enabled every child in the school system to get nutritious food each day, in a manner that eliminates stigma and the need for districts to sort through burdensome paperwork.

To participate in what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision, the city had to change the way it calculated poverty. Officials now use “direct certification”: To be counted as low-income, a family must participate in federal public assistance programs, such as food stamps. Students from immigrant families are less likely to qualify for those programs, or even apply, experts say, given fiery White House rhetoric, President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and his administration’s threat to hold immigrants’ use of public assistance against them.

“Immigration policy is education policy,” said Erica Greenberg, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

This has led to the inequitable distribution of Title I dollars, principals say. It’s affecting schools throughout the city at which many immigrant students attend. This population of students is rapidly growing in Baltimore, even as total enrollment declines.

Ruhrah’s loss of its Title I designation represents a dire example of what happens when a school’s poverty rate doesn’t accurately reflect the families it serves, and it is regarded by some as a bellwether of problems to come.

There are 112 city schools that meet Title I criteria for next year — but at several, leaders are worried that as their immigrant population increases, they will end up like Ruhrah. Already, some schools have seen their Title I allocations decrease, even if they haven’t lost the status.

Schools do not ask families for proof of citizenship. While some students in city schools are undocumented, many are U.S. citizens but come from households of mixed immigration statuses.

School district officials have committed to taking steps to reduce the impact of losing Title I status at Ruhrah. Because most of Ruhrah’s Title I funds have historically gone toward paying for staff members, the district has committed to funding three positions centrally. Still, Donnelly and others are concerned that these temporary solutions aren’t enough to fix a complex, systemic problem.

Typically, before the shift, about 80 percent of city students were identified as low-income. The move to direct certification has made it appear as though poverty — in a city where the median household income is $46,641, according to the Census Bureau — has fallen, districtwide, to 52.7 percent. The revised method for calculating poverty also sets a higher threshold for a family’s income.

“We are starting to see, unfortunately, that schools with high Latinx populations are continuing to drop in their poverty rates,” said the school system’s chief of staff, Alison Perkins-Cohen. “It’s impacting schools who really should be receiving these benefits. That’s really a challenge.”

Perkins-Cohen said the district is in a bind because there are no federal guidelines on how to address the systemic undercounting of immigrant children. State officials say they are similarly stumped. In the education world, few data points are as vital as this one.

The concern about not being able to identify all poor students has kept Baltimore County Public Schools officials from embracing the Community Eligibility Provision, even though it would mean more kids there would have access to free food.

Maryland is in the midst of a reckoning over the future of public education. The Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, known as the Kirwan Commission, has spent two years assembling recommendations on how to revamp schools and the way the state funds them. A key part of its plan: grants for schools where there is a high concentration of poverty.

For those grants to be used as intended, the poverty proxy must be fixed, argues state Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City).

“If we don’t have an accurate count of need, it’s very likely that schools we know by experience are facing challenges will not have access to the money we believe is necessary to overcome those challenges,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said he has analyzed possible solutions. New York City, for example, also provides free meals to all students but still urges parents to submit income forms. That doesn’t appeal to Baltimore officials, though, because of how labor-intensive it is to manage this information.

Some states use a multiplier to try to recapture students who are missed by direct certification.

Next year, the General Assembly will be charged with designating a universal method for school districts to calculate how many low-income students they’re serving.

The Kirwan Commission is considering options to recommend to legislators, but solving the problem of undercounting immigrants remains elusive.

The Maryland education and health departments are jointly working to develop the capacity to directly certify students using Medicaid data by December 2020. While this will ensure more students are counted as poor, state officials acknowledge it won’t solve the problem of under-identifying immigrant students, given these families are less likely to be enrolled.

“It kind of comes back to: You can’t count what you can’t count,” said Rachel Hise, a policy analyst with the Maryland Department of Legislative Services.

In the meantime, Baltimore City Public Schools has changed its Fair Student Funding formula, which determines the way money is allocated to individual schools. For each student who tests at the lowest levels of English proficiency, the district sends the school a few hundred extra dollars.

But while Ruhrah will get more money from the school system’s general fund next year, that doesn’t offset the losses from the Title I change. Its overall budget went from roughly $5 million this year to $4.8 million next year.

“We’ll watch our pennies,” Donnelly said. “I’ve been in the system for 45 years. I’ve been through budgets that were very, very tight. It’s just that when you work really hard and know you have families that should qualify, it’s frustrating.”

There’s no question in Donnelly’s mind that most of her students are living in poverty.

Just consider the emergency weekend backpacks.

Every week, the school distributes dozens of backpacks filled with crackers, peanut butter and other nonperishables. Students can take one home if they are worried about having enough to eat over the weekend.

“It’s rare,” Donnelly said, “there’s a backpack left over.”

— Baltimore Sun