Almost half of Kentucky county's children on school meals

Lexington Herald-LeaderFebruary 13, 2012 

Kentucky's Fayette County's public schools are closing in on a milestone that no one is happy about.

District figures show that, as of January, 49.4 percent of students enrolled in the Fayette County Public Schools were receiving free or reduced-cost school meals, based on their families' low incomes.

Putting it another way, that means nearly half of the district's roughly 38,000 students are living at or near poverty level. And officials say it could be only a matter of time before that figure hits 50 percent.

District officials have not conducted a formal analysis, but they cite several factors in the rising percentage: increased enrollment in recent years, more single-family households, more children being raised by grandparents or other relatives. But they say the main culprit is the national economic downturn that wiped out an estimated 7.9 million U.S. jobs starting in late 2007. Conditions are slowly improving, but large numbers remain out of work, and some economists contend that many lost jobs might never return.

"It's kind of a shock for Lexington-Fayette County, which traditionally has been a more affluent part of our state," Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said

Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said. "But it is a reflection of the times we are living in, as far as the number of people who are out of work or in lower-paying positions, which leaves many of them where they can't make ends meet."

The situation promises to pose stiff challenges for the school system, Shelton said, both in meeting students' physical needs and in continuing to boost educational achievement. He said that low-income students often struggle in class as a direct result of their economic disadvantages and that they need help to flourish academically.

"If those basic needs are not met, we can't reach the levels of learning that we're trying to reach," Shelton said.

As recently as September 2007, 37.2 percent of Fayette County Schools' students were on free or reduced lunch. The number rose to 41.8 percent the next month, and it has climbed ever since.

The same trend has continued across Kentucky, and the nation as a whole. In 1999-2000, 48 percent of Kentucky's school children received free or reduced meals. By 2009-2010, it was 55 percent. According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, virtually every state has seen sharp increases in the percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs over the past several years. Some have seen double-digit increases. Arkansas went from 45 percent in 1999-2000 to 60 percent in 2009-2010. Mississippi, which was at 63 percent, reached 71

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