WASHINGTON – More than one in four school-aged children in Somerset County and Baltimore City school districts live in poverty, the highest rates in the state, according to recently released census data.
In these two school districts, plus those in Dorchester and Allegany counties, the percentage of students in poverty exceeds the country’s 17.9 percent average, according to 2009 census data released Wednesday.
Somerset County School District has the state’s highest poverty rate at 26.6 percent, with Baltimore City following closely at 25.5 percent. Dorchester’s school district was the third highest at 22.4 percent. Allegany’s barely topped the national rate at 18 percent.
Howard County schools had the state’s lowest poverty rate at 4.6 percent.
The Department of Education uses this school district information — for students ages 5 to 17 — to carry out provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and to distribute federal funds.
Maryland’s school funding is also based on poverty and population, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education, and so it is carefully tracked.
“We take particular pride in schools that face challenges and when we succeed there, we know we’re really making some headway,” he said.
The General Assembly passed the Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002 to address this important issue, Reinhard said. The more than $1 billion provided through the act was meant to help equalize student performance despite the varying income levels of Maryland’s 24 school districts.
“It’s really increased aid to every school district, but especially ones such as Baltimore City and Prince George’s County that have high poverty rates,” Reinhard said.
This increased funding for school districts with higher numbers of students in poverty helps level the playing field, said Laura Beavers, national KIDS COUNT coordinator at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore.
“Across the board, most of the time there’s a negative relationship between poverty and school achievement,” Beavers said. But that doesn’t mean every school and every child will follow that trend, she said.
“It’s a very complicated relationship and it’s not one-to-one,” she said.
For example, Worchester County School District is tied for the fifth-highest poverty rate at 17.2 percent, but the class of 2010 earned $12 million in merit-based scholarships, said Superintendent Jon Andes.
“We see poverty as an additional challenge we must address,” Andes said, “but we do not see it as an impediment to learning.”
Worchester County offers full day kindergarten, universal pre-kindergarten, after school care and summer school programs to help its students — 42 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“We work hard to give each student every possible advantage to succeed in life,” Andes said.
This push to help equalize education is not just a concern for the school districts that top the poverty list.
Just because the Howard County School District has the lowest poverty rate — and is located in the county with the highest median household income, $101,940 — doesn’t mean it doesn’t worry about the relationship between poverty and school achievement, said Patti Caplan, Howard County Schools spokesperson.
“People think, ‘Well, that can’t be a problem in Howard County,’ but it is,” Caplan said. “And we want to raise awareness of the issue.”
The county’s school system offers free or reduced-price lunches to 14 percent of its students, Caplan said.
“Granted, we don’t have the poverty levels some are facing,” she said. But she has seen a rise in the number of impoverished students during her 25 years in the school system.
To help low-income students and others, Howard County schools offer after-school tutoring and homework help. The Bright Minds Foundation, created by the county’s department of education, offers refurbished computers to students without them at home.
Howard County, Caplan said, could also learn how else to help low-income students from other counties — like Worchester County — because “they’ve been dealing with this longer than we have.”