Kindergarten teacher JoAnne Hutson helps a group of six students with a special after-school session on spelling at West Gate Elementary School.
In the last decade, school administrators across Northern Virginia noticed a marked increased in the number of students who live in poverty. Nowhere was the trend more pitched than Manassas, where the percentage of students living in poverty increased from 24 to nearly 58 percent in the last 10 years. The school with the highest rate of poverty is West Gate Elementary School, where 91 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
“Many of our families are not homeowners. They are renters," says Julie Svendsen, principal of the school. "They’re also not renters of an entire townhouse. They’re usually renting a room, so many of our children share a room with five family members."
This is Svendsen’s first year as principal, but she says she’s seen a steady growth of poor children during her 15 years at the school as a teacher and administrator. She says many of the new students come from Central America.
“We have students who will come to us straight from El Salvador or Mexico or Honduras," says Svendsen. "And it could be a fifth grader who is a year one beginning English language speaker."
On a rainy afternoon at West Gate, the final bell just released students for the day. But about a quarter of the students are staying behind for special sessions to keep them from falling below grade level.
West Gate students are required to take the same standardized tests as everybody else, even if they are just beginning to learn the language.
"Many of our parents here, they didn’t finish school," says Svendsen. "They maybe made it through elementary school, you know, they experienced a lot of hardships. They want their children to have a better life than they’ve had."
But getting a better life can be an elusive goal for many.
“Jurisdictions have got to continue to make sure that we educate our kids, whether they come from affluent neighborhoods or whether they come from neighborhoods that aren’t quite affluent," says Manassas Mayor Hal Parrish.
In the same period where Manassas saw a huge increase in the number of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch, the percentage in Fairfax County rose from 20.4 percent to 28 percent. But even though the increase in percentage is smaller, Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova says that given the scale of the school system, that growth is larger than might be expected.
“We have more children in our school system living in poverty than the entire school system in Washington, D.C.," says Bulova. "And those are expensive kids to educate."
Fairfax schools superintendent Karen Garza says those students are not evenly distributed throughout the county.
"In many cases, that poverty is concentrated in certain areas," says Garza. "So we have over 47 schools within our system that are 50 percent or higher free or reduced lunch, 12 of those are 70 percent or higher."
Balancing the Books
Leaders in Fairfax as well as other parts of Virginia say those rising rates of poverty are putting elected officials in a bind. Either they devote more money toward to the school system — cutting back on other services — or poor children suffer.
That’s one of the reasons they were pleased to hear Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announce a $1 billion increase in education funding in his budget proposal. That includes $50 million to prevent poor children from dropping out of school.
“Our young children’s future should not be dependent on their parents' financial condition or their ZIP code," said McAuliffe, announcing the budget at Mark Twain Middle School in Fairfax County. "It is right to start them out early."
The ZIP code where the governor made that announcement has a per capita income of $50,000. That’s almost twice the per capita income as the ZIP code at West Gate Elementary in Manassas, where Julie Svendsen is overseeing the afternoon classes for children who have fallen behind in language and math.
“Our mantra is that we focus on what’s best for children and not what’s easiest for adults," says Svendsen.
West Gate offers specialized instruction before and after school. That means Svendsen has to pay teachers overtime to show up early and stay late. It's an expensive proposition. But it helps students from falling below grade level.
“And that does cost money," says Svendsen. "I am paying teachers right now for an additional 45 to 60 minutes after school. Also before school, we have people who are running intervention groups as well."
She says the individualized instruction at the heart of her school’s mission requires an extra commitment from teachers and staff.
“Extending our learning day is not, 'Who wants to stay after work?'" she asks. "There are some people who, you know, I wash my hands at 3:15 and I’m out. That’s not how it works here at West Gate."
All that extra time teaching children who are behind grade level, all those interventions to help struggling students, Svendsen says that all adds up, and local governments say they are at a breaking point. Either state leaders start funding the rising cost of educating children in poverty or school leaders may have to cut back on programs to keep these children from falling behind.