The discussion centering on the concentration of students living in poverty in Howard County, and how those students perform on state tests, isn't a new one, but it came up again as a major point of discussion between members of Howard County's Board of Education and the County Council.

In last week's conversation on students receiving free and reduced meal services (FARMS), Howard County Public School System staff and the board presented data showing the correlation between FARMS rates and academics, and outlined proposed programs designed to eliminate achievement gaps. County Council members and school staff noted the discrepancy between qualifying income levels for social service programs, which highlight the fact that FARMS rates alone aren't true indicators of poverty.

Students who receive free and reduced meals are performing at lower levels than those who aren't, the school system's Chief Accountability Officer Grace Chesney told the council at the quarterly meeting of the school board and the County Council on Jan. 8. They are, however, performing better than the state average for FARMS students on tests such as the Maryland School Assessment.

Schools that had greater than 20 percent of students receiving free and reduced meal services in the 2012-13 academic year, Chesney said, had greater than 80 percent of their students score proficient on the reading MSAs.

"The schools that are highly impacted [by FARMS] are still performing well," she said.

But there's an income difference between families who qualify for free and reduced meal services and those who fall below the poverty line, said District 4 Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, and the free and reduced meal program "takes into account a much broader range of incomes, and that's important for us to understand."

District 1 Councilwoman Courtney Watson said for a family of four to fall below the poverty line, household income must be around $22,000 or less; to qualify for free and reduced meals, that income level is around $44,000, leaving a gap in which some families may not qualify for other assistance.

There's also a decline in FARMS rate from elementary schools to high schools, said Caroline Walker, the school system's coordinator of academic intervention and the Title I program. A family may automatically qualify for the food program, but the majority must apply.

"There are lots of people who are eligible and choose not to participate," she said. "[FARMS] are an indicator, but it's not 100 percent, to say, 'This is poverty and this is not.' "

Even though Howard County has a smaller achievement gap compared to other districts in the state, Superintendent Renee Foose said the school system is focusing on closing the gap. When Foose proposed her $742 million operating budget for fiscal year 2015, $1.48 million was included for a Title I pilot. Under the pilot, Talbott Springs, Phelps Luck, Running Brook, Stevens Forest and Bryant Woods elementary schools will have full-day pre-kindergarten and daily Spanish instruction for pre-kindergarten through second grade.

Those schools will also pilot a departmentalization model, so teachers will be teaching two subjects instead of a full day of classes in various subject areas. Professional development staff will also focus on strengths-based instruction and student engagement, Foose said, in partnership with Gallup. Surveys conducted by Gallup at those schools indicated a low level of hopefulness among students, Foose said.

"That is what perpetuates the poverty gap, here and around the country — that students don't have hope," she said.

There's other discrepancies between schools with high concentration of FARMS students and those without, said District 3 Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, like PTA involvement and fundraising contributions. Terrasa asked if actions by the board or the council could be attributed to concentrations of students living in poverty, like redistricting or zoning. Board Chairwoman Ellen Giles said the presentation of student population and test scores Chesney gave the council last week was more of "an observation, not a conclusion."

Board of Education member Brian Meshkin said the "real gap" is a social issue, and suggested the county government look at ways of addressing the high cost of living in the county and fostering economic development, as well as focusing on programs like job training and language training. If a student is learning English as a second language, Meshkin said, that likely means their family members might also not be fluent, which could be holding them back in the job market.

"It's going to take a whole-family approach to break this issue," he said.