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.