Today, public schools are by and large the central social institutions for students, providing everything from two-thirds of daily meals to after school care.
And for many students living in poverty or facing homelessness, schools can be the primary stabilizing force in their lives.
“A lot of times, the school and the classroom are places where they’re safe, they’re fed, they’re warm and dry and it’s predictable,” said Tracy Wilson, Director of Assessment and Federal Programs for Gordon County Schools. “Sometimes it’s a better place for them. They don’t want to be away from their home, but the school provides a great deal.”
November is National Homeless Awareness Month and it sheds light on a problem that is facing both Gordon County and Calhoun City Schools.
As many as 250 students in Gordon County Schools and 109 in Calhoun City Schools are considered homeless under 2012-2013 federal guidelines, according to numbers provided by both districts.
Essentially, this means that the legal guardian and accompanying family members have been displaced from their homes. They either live in hotels, with relatives or in some manner of temporary housing.
In addition, 66.80 percent of Gordon County students and 61 percent of Calhoun City students receive free or reduced lunches, the districts reported.
Under federal guidelines, students can receive free and reduced lunches based on their parents’ income relative to the poverty line.
Free lunches are provided to students whose parents make up to 130 percent of the poverty line. Reduced lunches are given to students whose parents make up to 185 percent of the poverty line.
For example, the poverty line for a two-person household is $15,130 annually, according to federal guidelines.
The parent in that household could make up to $19,669 per year and the student could still receive free lunches. For reduced lunches, the parent could make up to $27,991 annually.
Every school in Gordon County and Calhoun provided free or reduced lunches to at least 49 percent of their respective students last year, according to Georgia Department of Education numbers.
Calhoun Primary, which had the highest enrollment of all city schools last year at 1,151 students had the highest number of students on free and reduced lunch at 62.47 percent.
Calhoun High had the fewest number in either district at 49.83 percent last year.
In Gordon County, Tolbert Elementary had the highest percentage of students on free and reduced lunches at 78.72 percent last year. Some 518 of the school’s 658 students were on free and reduced lunches, according to the Georgia Department of Education.
Tolbert, Swain Elementary and Ashworth Middle were all above 70 percent.
Sonoraville High, which had the highest enrollment in the county at 1,038, had the lowest percentage of students on free and reduced lunches at 54.53 percent.
Gordon County Schools Superintendent Bill McCown attributed the large number of students on free and reduced lunches to a sluggish economy that hits rural areas especially hard.
“Poverty is an issue anyway because we’re a rural community,” McCown said “And what we’ve noted is that our poverty rate has increased by 10 percent over the last five years.”
The 2010 U.S. Census determined that there were 3,804 people under the age of 18 living in poverty in Gordon County, or about 26 percent of the total population.
These numbers are based off survey data that includes income tax returns, participation in SNAP — formerly called food stamps — and similar programs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In 2011, there were roughly 10,500 students enrolled in all schools in Calhoun and Gordon County, according to Georgia Department of Education numbers.
More than 6,000 of those students qualified for free or reduced lunches, the department reported.
This is a trend that is not confined to Gordon County and Calhoun. Roughly one in five Georgians live in poverty, according to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.
Neighboring counties like Murray, Floyd and Whitfield report high numbers of students on free and reduced lunches.
Murray County had the highest rate at 74.40 percent, followed by 69 percent in Whitfield and 58.19 in Floyd.
Dalton City schools had 75.99 percent on free and reduced lunches and Rome City had 74.79, according to department of education numbers.
Addressing the issue
Before the school year began, Calhoun Primary School Principal Beth Holcomb and her staff set a goal to better understand how poverty impacts students.
Some staff members traveled to Orlando to learn from Ruby Payne, a renowned poverty educator who provided them with strategies on how to be more effective with students in great need.
Their focus is now on not just sympathizing with a child, but empathizing as well.
“Hopefully we can use the information and the things we’ve learned through professional development to do a better job of educating that group of students and caring for them,” Holcomb said.
Schools like Calhoun Primary already have programs in place to help students in need.
Many send home “backpack buddies,” which are backpacks filled non-perishable food items; they offer summer programs that provide two meals a day and many already have clothes closets set up for students.
One of the biggest obstacles for schools is finding the funds to provide more services for students.
“No one is complaining about providing (services) for children,” McCown said. “But we have really done that with virtually no increase in funding and if you look at the school days in the year, not only have we done it with the 180 days we’ve always had and now — since the state does not provide us with the funding that is adequate for educating children — we’re doing it with less days.
“And while you’re at it, you have to hit these unreal expectations and by golly 100 percent are going to graduate on time and be at grade level.”
Still, teachers and administrators press on to reach the students even if it means sacrifice.
“It’s an unfortunate necessity for public schools because if we don’t provide (services), the students can’t learn,” McCown said. “If they’re hungry they can’t learn. If you can’t take care of their basic medical needs, they can’t learn. Is it fair? It’s not fair, but an educator is going to take care of a child.”