Officials see rise in student poverty levels

PARKERSBURG -Schools in Wood County continue to see growth in the number of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.

John Merritt, director of Title I for Wood County Schools, told the Wood County Board of Education Tuesday that 56 percent of the county’s students are on the free and reduced lunch programs, up 4 percent from 2011. It was 49 percent in 2010.

Of 12,470 students, almost 7,000 qualify, Merritt said. Those numbers do not include pre-K students or students over 18 years of age. Those numbers are even higher.

“This has really shot up,” he said.

Enrollment at six schools is more than 80 percent eligible, with two – Jefferson and Fairplains -close to 90 percent eligible.

This is the first time Merritt said he can recall all of the county schools eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. Greenmont is at the 35 percent threshold, making it eligible for a targeted program. Any school with more than 40 percent of its enrollment that qualifies for the lunch program is eligible for a school-wide program.

Merritt told the board the poverty numbers are up by about 800 students, despite an overall decrease in student enrollment.

“We lost students, but gained students in poverty,” he said.

The county is reimbursed $300,000-$400,000 during a full school month for the free and reduced lunch program, Beverly Blough, director of food services, said.

“It’s significant, but it doesn’t even begin to cover the cost of the project,” she said.

The school system receives $4 million annually in federal Title I funding that is spread among the county’s 10 Title I schools, Merritt said. Funding is based on poverty levels in the school system.

Every school in the county is eligible for the Title I designation, Merritt said.

The funding is used for personnel, technology and training.

If there had been a huge drop in poverty numbers, it would affect the system’s federal funding, Merritt said. Though Merritt said the looming potential cuts to federal spending programs could also affect the district’s funding. When Congress was discussing the fiscal cliff, Merritt said there was talk of lopping 8 or 9 percent off the programs, such as Title I funding.

Federal cuts could still be forthcoming.

“We will wait and see what happens,” he said.