Sun Investigates

How Baltimore schools determine what constitutes poverty among students, families

The Baltimore school board voted this week to revamp the district’s funding formula, choosing to provide extra dollars to schools on the basis of student poverty rather than standardized test scores.

So how does Baltimore City Public Schools decide who qualifies as poor?


Districts across the country historically have used the percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced priced meals, or FARMs, as a proxy for poverty.

But given Baltimore’s large number of qualifying students — 86.5 percent received free or discounted meals in the 2014-15 school year — the district began offering free meals for all students through a federal program that eliminates the need for families to fill out the cumbersome FARMs application.


As a result, the district now identifies children living in poverty based on their family’s participation in federal assistance programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps.

The federal government believes this method, dubbed “direct certification,” improves the data’s integrity.

But the model has a higher threshold for what constitutes poverty, akin to counting just the students who previously received free meals rather than reduced-price ones. That makes it look like the percentage of students from low-income families has fallen dramatically since 2015.

Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff to schools CEO Sonja Santelises, said this method also leaves out many recent immigrants and undocumented students.

“We’re getting an undercount of those students in the way we count poverty,” Perkins-Cohen said at a recent board meeting.

District officials tried to ameliorate that effect in the newly approved Fair Student Funding formula, which will next year send additional funds to schools based on how many of its students come from low-income families.

Schools will get this extra money both for every student whose family receives services through federal programs like Medicaid, as well as for students who test at the lowest levels of English proficiency.

Santelises said this is “not a perfect solution,” but, given the national challenges surrounding immigration, this methodology takes steps to ensure “we don’t leave our young people out.”


For schools like Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, which serves a large immigrant population, this workaround could make a big difference.

More than 95 percent of Lakeland students qualified for free-or-reduced lunch in 2015, before the district stopped collecting applications. Now, under the direct certification count, 45 percent of students were identified as low income in 2017.

Roughly a quarter of Lakeland students are English language learners, according to school district data.

The system of using direct certification as a proxy for poverty needs additional scrutiny, said Lakeland principal Najib Jammal, but the district’s plan to include students with low English proficiency in the funding formula’s poverty count is “the right move.”