Even though it’s the middle of June, children are lining up at Copperas Cove Junior High School. The group is there to get a free lunch from the district’s summer feeding program, which provides two meals a day to students.
Last year, the program served roughly 3,000 meals to students. This year, the district expanded the program, opening two additional sites.
To the east, the Killeen Independent School District is running its nutrition program, which officials estimate will serve more than 11,300 meals a day to area children, up from 7,800 meals a day last year.
Both programs are an outward sign of an upward trend in the number of economically disadvantaged students in Central Texas school districts — a number that continues to grow each year.
“The situation is much worse than many people think,” said Mary Barr, executive director of Communities In Schools of Greater Central Texas, a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk and economically disadvantaged students. “The number of children in need continues to go up.”
The Texas Education Agency classifies a student as “economically disadvantaged” if they receive free or reduced-cost lunch. The agency’s data showed an estimated 59 percent of students were classified as economically disadvantaged for the 2012-2013 school year in Education Service Center Region 12, which includes Copperas Cove, Killeen, Belton, Temple, Salado, Lampasas and Gatesville.
All told, 95,224 students are now classified as economically disadvantaged in Region 12, an increase of more than 1 percent from the last school year, and a 4 percent increase from the 2009-2010 school year.
That growth is reflected in nearly every local school district. The Killeen Independent School District reported about 56 percent, or 23,488 students, were economically disadvantaged. That number was up 2 percent from last year, and roughly 4 percent from the 2009-2010 school year.
The Copperas Cove Independent School District reported 49 percent of its students were economically disadvantaged. The Belton district’s economically disadvantaged student rate was 48 percent. Both saw increases from the previous school year.
For administrators like Scott Moger, those numbers mean districts must continue to work to serve a growing need.
“When it comes to that group of students, the issues and causes become very complex,” said Moger, the assistant superintendent of student services for the Temple Independent School District. “They often have a lack of accessibility to services and resources, and we have to supply those resources for them.”
Temple has some of the highest numbers of economically disadvantaged students in Region 12. According to TEA, nearly 74 percent of the district’s 8,838 students were classified as economically disadvantaged for the school year that just ended. That number increased by 5 percent since the 2009-2010 school year.
In order to serve the needs of those students, the district not only offers academic and support programs in schools, but also looks to work with the surrounding community to assist students.
“We involve our community and stakeholders,” Moger said. “We partner with Temple College, Scott & White Health Services and other organizations to introduce programs that serve underprivileged students.”
Those programs include everything from health services and tutoring to TISD’s Wildcat mentor program, which pairs students up with positive role models.
“We are very grateful, because the community in Temple has been extremely supportive,” Moger said.
But those services and programs cost districts money. Despite growing numbers of economically disadvantaged students, Texas lawmakers cut more than $4 billion in funding from public education in the last biennium.
Those cuts forced districts to scale back programs that benefited poor students, including Communities In Schools.
“We had to reduce services at some schools in some districts over the last two years, that’s one reason why our staff is constantly looking and applying for grants,” Barr said. “Most districts either had to cut funding or stay at the same level of funding, even though the number of those students was increasing.”
Next year, districts will get some funding back.
Legislators restored $3.4 billion for education during this year’s session. But it may not be enough.
“When you make dramatic cuts at the state level, the assumption is that you can just fix it in the next session,” said Beth Quill, the executive director for the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “That’s a fallacy, because it takes years to recuperate, re-establish and recover from the consequences.”
The organization, which advocates for children nationally, recently participated in “Be Careful What You Cut,” a campaign designed to warn the public about the long-term consequences of cutting funding for education.
“We need to understand that there is a trade-off when you cut those programs, and it impacts the children and the entire community,” Quill said. “It’s not that people don’t know what we need to do, we just need to collectively say that our children are important and be their voice.”
While debates concerning funding for education and the causes of the growth in the number of impoverished students continue, Texas districts are left to manage resources as best they can to serve a rising population.
“The funding is part of it, but you just can’t throw money at a problem,” Moger said. “The funding and spending is the most smart, effective way that you can.”