The four Pennsylvania school districts with the highest percentage of students living in poverty are in the Pittsburgh region.
While no district in Pennsylvania reached a majority percentage, a new national analysis of the 2012-13 school year data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics shows 51 percent of students in preschool through 12th grade were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunch.
Eligibility guidelines fluctuate yearly based on household size and inflation for the free and reduced-price lunch program, but it is often used to measure how many students come from low-income households. The assistance is guaranteed for families receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
In Pennsylvania, six school districts have a poverty rate greater than 40 percent including Clairton City (47.9), Duquesne City (46), Sto-Rox (44.7) and Wilkinsburg (43.2), according to statistician Paul Ricci who lives in Pittsburgh.
Bill Wolfe, executive director of Homeless Children’s Education Fund in Pittsburgh, said the high percentage of area students living in poverty is not new.
“We’ve seen the trend continue, especially since the 2008-2009 recession. We continue to see a growth in children and families living in poverty and children and families who are becoming homeless as a result of poverty,” he said.
The Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes access to quality education for disadvantaged students, reports this is the first time in at least 50 years that a majority of public school students come from low-income families.
Wolfe said neighbors are often not aware of how many students in their area live in poverty.
“The school district’s in Allegheny County reported over 1,800 school-aged children last year who were homeless during the school year. That’s a large number. And the community is not aware that the problem exists in many cases,” he said.
He advocates putting pressure on politicians for funding to support education in order to end the poverty cycle.
“A lot of families living in poverty don’t have access – or don’t have availability – to early childhood education opportunities. And of course that means the child comes into school behind everybody else,” Wolfe said.
Because, Wolfe says, living in poverty severely limits a child’s capability to learn.
“But living in poverty often creates a great amount of instability in the children. There are nutritional issues, whether they’re getting a proper night’s sleep, their ability to do homework, to study after-school. Homelessness and poverty has a tremendous impact on the child’s ability to learn,” he said.