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A better way to track poverty in Baltimore schools

John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School in the Graceland Park neighborhood of East Baltimore.
John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle School in the Graceland Park neighborhood of East Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

One of the most important conclusions of the Kirwan Commission, the panel charged with steering Maryland’s schools toward 21st century excellence and innovation, was that greater support should be given those students who need it most. In other words, schools that serve high-poverty areas don’t need financial help comparable to what other schools receive, they require significantly more to address their much greater needs. That means support for before- and after-school programs, special education, English as a second language instruction, connections to social and health programs and more. The approach is unsurprising to any experienced educator who has actually grappled with the daunting challenges associated with concentrated poverty, but having it so clearly articulated was, at the least, a rallying cry to school administrators across the state — with the expectation that help was on the way from Annapolis.

So imagine that in the midst of this clearly delineated priority, the opposite was happening — and for reasons that can only (generously) be described as bureaucratic and nonsensical. At John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle, where as many as 90 percent of the students have been identified as poor, the school is on the cusp of losing Title I status and, with it, at least $250,000 in federal assistance directed toward schools serving poor areas. Why? Not because there are fewer poor kids enrolled but because of a change in how their poverty is assessed.

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As detailed by The Sun’s Talia Richman, Baltimore’s switch in 2015 to a system-wide free lunch and breakfast program inadvertently created this muddle. Since poverty in city schools used to be measured by how many students qualified for free and reduced price meals, city schools switched to the next available yardstick, which is to measure how many families qualify for other types of federal safety net benefits such as food stamps (formally known as SNAP). The problem with using SNAP as a proxy for poverty is that it severely under-counts immigrant families, particularly the undocumented who are ineligible for food stamps (or other federal programs like Medicaid or Social Security Income, incidentally).

Even immigrant families that can qualify for SNAP benefits may be reluctant to apply these days given the hostile anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the White House. But, of course, that doesn't change the reality that city schools, like all public schools in the United States, are still responsible for educating the children who live in their districts regardless of status (as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection language and the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe makes clear). The challenge of educating immigrant children isn’t going away, but the funding apparently is.

John Ruhrah is on the cutting edge of this dilemma because it has a high number of immigrant students. But school administrators acknowledge that other city schools may soon be in the same predicament. Officials at North Avenue have taken what steps they can to smooth over the transition, redirecting some existing funding to the benefit of schools with a high number of students who perform poorly in English testing. But that won’t overcome a deficit measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The solution? Surely, the best available would be to copy what’s already being done in New York and have schools collect income data from families, who are far more likely to entrust their local educators with such information than the state or federal government. The system is not ideal. It would require a certain amount of manpower from schools to fulfill such tasks as spot-checking families to make sure their income claims are correct. But, as Matt Hornbeck, principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, noted on these pages two months ago (“Critical school poverty rate miscalculated in Md; here’s how to fix it,” March 18), every other district in Maryland still does this, essentially, by collecting income statements to determine who qualifies for free or reduced price lunches. The General Assembly could easily pass a law next year mandating this reporting system for every district.

One final point. For those who think this is a problem only for undocumented immigrants or that it somehow might deter future illegal immigration, think again. The loss of funding threatens educational opportunities for all students at Ruhrah. And, as even the most hardhearted must acknowledge, an inadequate public education is how poverty and the chronic issues that arise from it — such as drug abuse, crime, out-of-wedlock births and so on — worsen. And that can cause serious and lasting harm not only to Baltimore but far beyond the district’s borders.

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