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In suburbia, a growing education in poverty

SchoolsElementary SchoolsMiddle SchoolsPreschools and Early LearningRentalsPovertyDining and Drinking

From its distinguished alumni — CEOs, well-known authors, professional actors — to its enviable test scores and championship sports teams, the Parkland School District glows with an aura of affluence and privilege.

But amid its McMansions, backyard pools and pristine parks lies a different Parkland, one that has long been hidden but is emerging, family by family, into view. It's the Parkland of the poor.

Over the past five years, the district has seen a dramatic rise in the number of students living in poverty. A total of 1,605 students — about one in five — qualified this school year for free or reduced-price lunches, the benchmark for determining the level of low-income students in schools. That number could fill more than half the district's eight elementary schools.

Parkland, now home to three church-run food banks, isn't alone. Across the Lehigh Valley, suburban school districts are grappling with the challenges of an emerging demographic of families that are dealing with job loss and doubling up with friends and relatives in cramped motel rooms and apartments or even living out of cars.

Forty-four percent of the nearly 100,000 public school students in Lehigh and Northampton counties qualified this school year for the federal school lunch program. That's up from about one-third in 2007, according to a Morning Call analysis of state Department of Education records on students qualifying for free and reduced-lunch in 2007 and 2014.

The poverty spike comes as districts are coping with budget pressures driven by significant losses in state funding in recent years, and it has prompted school officials to form alliances to meet the challenges presented by poor children.

Parkland, East Penn, Salisbury Township and other districts have tackled the trend with new and enhanced programs designed to provide basic necessities — toothbrushes, bookbags, food — and supply the extra academic, emotional and social support that may be lacking at home.

They're teaming with nonprofits to provide those services. They're linking people to social service agencies. They're expanding before- and after-school food and homework programs and, in some cases, starting Head Start classes.

"Parkland enjoys a good reputation and well-deserved reputation, but we've tried to chip away and let people know that we're a very fortunate school district but have the same problems as everybody else," said Diane Irish, the district's social worker.

Consider Michele, who lives with her father, her 13-year-old daughter and her 12-year-old son in a single room at a run-down motel in Upper Macungie Township.

Over lunch one afternoon at a township restaurant, Michele said she moved to the motel — where her father already lived — after her roommate in an Allentown apartment left and she couldn't afford the rent on her own.

The children, in sixth and seventh grades, get enough to eat at school through the free and reduced-price lunch program, and outside school through roughly $500 a month in food stamps, she said. The children's father contributes about $400 a month in child support, and Michele's father pays most of the room cost.

But living in a shuffle of homes over the past few years has prevented them from settling into a stable routine. The children sleep in sleeping bags on the floor and are far from neighborhoods where they might find playmates.

This is especially hard for Michele's son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism, and relies on a number of medications to stabilize his behavior. He's run into disciplinary problems at school, some of which Michele attributes to his transient lifestyle.

"If I can get a place of my own, he'll get into it, he'll get his routine down," she said.

Michele has worked sporadically, most recently at a temporary job in a warehouse that ended with the holidays. She has had trouble finding steady employment because she must rely on public transportation — she can't afford a car any more than she can afford an apartment — and has a slim resume.

Irish, who worked with poor students in the Allentown School District before moving to Parkland, said most families in such circumstances never expected to be there.

"You get a snowball effect," she said. "There's some precipitating incident — job loss, illness — and you start falling behind in bills. It compounds and snowballs and you start shifting into survival mode."

Michele seems to be the quintessential victim of circumstances and environment. She never really had a proper home. Her parents, reasoning that the cost of a motel included electricity and cable television, raised her in such places. When her children's father left years ago, she abruptly became a single mother of two with little support.

"Life doesn't always end on a happy note. Life can be a pain," Michele said.

Stories like Michele's are being played out throughout the region.

In the Lehigh Valley, where the median household income is about $55,000, the biggest poverty spikes have been seen in traditionally wealthier suburban schools, where free and reduced-price lunch eligibility has jumped by 70 percent or more in a number of districts over the past six years.

Children from families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level — $23,850 for a family of four — and children in families receiving food stamp benefits are eligible for free lunches. Children in families whose income is between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price lunches.

Since the start of the recession, some of the biggest increases have been seen in the Saucon Valley, Salisbury, Parkland, Nazareth Area and East Penn school districts.

"We have seen these numbers increase, especially during that massive downturn in the economy," said Thomas Mirabella, student services director at East Penn, which provided help to 49 homeless students this school year, up from 29 three years ago. "When all of that hit, we saw a spike in the number of parents who were basically on edge, living paycheck to paycheck.

"This is quite an eye-opening experience for people that live within East Penn," Mirabella said. "I don't think they realize that the problem exists to the extent that it does."

Jessica, a 34-year-old mother of three, knows all too well. She has been surviving with the help of Emmaus-area churches chipping in to subsidize rent for her modest apartment.

After spending more than a decade ascending the corporate ladder to a $23-per-hour job that paid for her family's $1,500-per-month apartment in New York and everything her three children needed, Jessica lost her job at a New York costume jewelry company. She moved to the Lehigh Valley searching for work and a lower cost of living, but instead found more challenges.

She eventually came face to face with a social worker who makes a living helping the impoverished.

"She said, 'Basically, you're considered homeless,' " Jessica said, fighting back tears. "I never considered myself homeless. I broke down."

She now considers herself in "survival mode." Two years after her move to the Lehigh Valley, Jessica and her boyfriend are working to become self-sufficient.

If not for the help of the Emmaus Ecumenical Ministries Team, Jessica and her family might still be living in a cramped multiple-family home or in a motel or, worse yet, on the street.

Tim Dooner, a pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church, one of the team's participating Emmaus churches, said the need to help people like Jessica is vital and growing. The churches, which have helped two families with rent over the past few years, are looking to expand their program to help more families.

"If anything is surprising, it's not the reality that the need exists," Dooner said, "but perhaps the sheer volume."

That volume, in many cases, has prompted school districts to turn not only to church groups but to community organizations for help.

For example, Parkland and Northwestern Lehigh School District have partnered with the Rotary Club of Allentown's western Lehigh County chapter, which runs a program called "Operation Snack Pack." Students in need are discreetly given boxes containing non-perishable food items to supplement meals over the weekends.

The boxes also contain toothbrushes, toothpaste and other toiletries, which can't be bought with food stamps. Irish said she knows of families in the district that share a single toothbrush.

City dwellers are often within walking district of social service agencies and other organizations that can help the poor find housing, repair their credit and tackle other challenges of poverty. But in the suburbs, where cars are virtually a necessity, these places are often beyond the reach of the poor.

"Pride gets in the way, too," Irish said. "Asking for help can be a very hard thing to do."

Irish's solution was to gather dozens of agencies together once a year at a location central to the district — Asbury United Methodist Church — and hold a daylong fair where children could be entertained while their parents learned ways to help themselves.

"The idea was one-stop shopping, where you could talk to multiple representatives," Irish said.

The importance of connecting poor families with help goes beyond immediate needs. If the cycle is to be broken, the children need to do well in school, Irish said.

"If a student is hungry, scared or worried, they're not going to learn, no matter how good the school," she said. "If you don't know where you're going to sleep at night or whether you are going to get food, you're not going to learn."

Poverty affects behavior, attendance and health, said Barbara Samide, principal at Harry S. Truman Elementary School in the Salisbury district. Some children need more support because they're living with a single parent or in homes where parents are both working long hours or multiple jobs.

This school year marks the first time Salisbury qualified for Head Start, a federal school-readiness program for low-income children up to the age of 5. East Penn plans to begin the federal pre-school program this coming school year.

Salisbury also has brought in students from DeSales University's registered nurse program to provide hygiene tips and has worked with St. Luke's University Hospital to create a fitness program. Samide said her school — where free- and reduced-lunch eligibility increased from 28 percent in 2006 to 44 percent this school year — uses the "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" to teach children about leadership.

At Southern Lehigh, district officials have sought reduced rates at hotels for some families.

In 2012, the Wilson Area School District, seeing a need to help its growing number of struggling families, turned its old middle school cafeteria into the LINCS Family Center.

Linking Individual Needs to Community Services does just that, offering everything from tutoring, medical screenings and a thrift store to computer classes, a children's activity room and a fitness and nutrition center.

Popular at the center are "Warrior Bags," backpacks given to students on Fridays so they have healthy snacks over the weekend.

School districts such as Catasauqua Area, which saw its poverty rates rise nearly 75 percent since 2007, have had to start school breakfast programs and ramp up remediation classes, particularly in the elementary schools. Teachers are on alert for children in need.

"In small, tight-knit communities like Catasauqua, North Catasauqua and Hanover Township, there exists a high awareness level of families in need, and the level of support is swift and available in many circumstances," Superintendent Robert Spendler said.

Even city schools, which have traditionally aided poverty-stricken families, have seen a rise in the number of needy.

Bethlehem Area School District, where pockets of poverty have existed for decades, has recently seen increases in poor students at specific elementary schools. Spring Garden Elementary in Bethlehem had about 15 percent of students living in poverty in 2005. During the 2012-13 school year, that number had risen to about 39 percent, said Vivian Robledo Shorey, the district's supervisor of Student & Community Engagement.

Russell "Rooster" Valentini, the homelessness liaison for the Allentown School District, has worked with the city's poorest families since the late 1980s. The district has just under 700 homeless students this year. Nearly 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

In recent years, Valentini has seen the growing trend in the suburbs while working as a regional coordinator for the state's Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program. He said that in many cases people are coming to the Lehigh Valley from other areas like New York and New Jersey with little money and no home.

"We're just trying to get them their day in the sun and get things normal," he said. "If we can just get them out of their survival mode. If we can get them to think about making steps toward improvement and start considering a dream instead of plugging a leak."

Jessica, the Emmaus woman getting help from local churches, has been in survival mode for months. Her boyfriend has been working two jobs that pay an hourly rate of about $10. She continues to look for work as she cares for her youngest son while her two others are in school.

She has to find a new apartment this month, when the churches will bring another family into the place where she is now staying.

"If I don't remain positive, I'd go insane," she said. "I envision that once I go to some [normalcy], maybe I'll be able to have a house and my kids will have a backyard.

"Slowly, we're rebuilding."

patrick.lester@mcall.com

Twitter @plester6

610-820-6764

Reporters Jacqueline Palochko, Bill Landauer and Adam Clark and database editor Eugene Tauber contributed to this story.

WAYS TO HELP

The Rotary Club of Allentown West-Western Lehigh County accepts donations for its Snack Pack program. Checks payable to Rotary Club of Allentown West may be sent c/o Gloria Zimmerman, 3927 Wordsworth St., Allentown, PA 18104, with "Snack Pack Program" in the memo line.

The Emmaus church program accepts donations at Emmaus Ecumenical Ministries Team, c/o Bethel Bible Fellowship Church, 418 Elm St., Emmaus, PA 18049.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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SchoolsElementary SchoolsMiddle SchoolsPreschools and Early LearningRentalsPovertyDining and Drinking
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