By Chris McGuinness
Killeen Daily Herald
When Margaret Rorick moved to Killeen seven years ago, she worked a full-time job but still had trouble financially.
"It was just the way the economy is," said Rorick. "My husband was also deployed, and it was hard for the family to adjust to that."
Rorick said she was most worried about the couple's two children in public school.
"It's hard because, as a parent, you try to shelter your children from what's going on," she said. "But they pick up on things like that."
Rorick sought help from Communities in Schools-Greater Central Texas, a nonprofit organization that serves school districts in Bell, Coryell, Williamson and Milam counties. It focuses on helping children overcome difficult obstacles and keeping them in school.
"It was an excellent program, and they really did a lot for the kids," Rorick said. "It was nice to know that the program was there to help us get an extra pair of shoes, or some extra food in the pantry."
Mary Erwin-Barr, director of the Killeen-based nonprofit organization, said ensuring children from economically disadvantaged homes have the basic necessities was the key to helping them achieve academically.
"It can affect every facet of their lives," said Erwin-Barr. "If you don't have adequate clothing, or haven't eaten, or didn't get enough sleep, how can you be expected to do well at school?"
In Texas, economically disadvantaged students, or those who receive free or reduced lunches, are falling behind in some academic areas, according to the 2010-11 report from the Texas Education Agency's Academic Excellence Indicator System.
According to the report, 68 percent of economically disadvantaged students met the required standards on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, 8 percent lower than the state average.
The report also showed that economically disadvantaged students in grades nine though 12 had a 4.7 percent dropout rate, which is 2.3 percent higher than the state average. It is a gap Communities in Schools is trying to close by offering food, school supplies, clothes and some medical care among other things.
In Central Texas, the nonprofit organization has 60 employees working in seven districts. The staffers work on campus and monitor students in the program to make sure they have what they need to get an education.
"We are there to be the person they can trust and talk to when they are having a difficult time," said Milly Caballo, a CIS site director at Killeen High School. "Sometimes, the reason they are having trouble concentrating at school is because of issues at home, and we do whatever we can to address those."
The Killeen Independent School District operates its Homeless Awareness Response Program, which identifies displaced students and provides them with basic necessities.
"We give (the students) school supplies, two sets of street clothes, as well as personal hygiene items," said Denise Pennington, coordinator for state and federal programs for the school district. "We also provide some transportation, and can help refer families to organizations that might help them find a place to live."
Copperas Cove Independent School District spokeswoman Katie Rudesheim provided a written response to questions about its programs.
"We have a number of programs that work to help all students achieve their highest standards of performance in CCISD," she wrote in an email. "Our intervention programs work for all CCISD students to meet specific academic needs of an individual. Our teachers consistently work to ensure that all students are receiving the best instruction for their academic success."
When Rudesheim was asked to elaborate on the email statement, she said the school district did not classify its programs based on a students socio-economic status and was unable to give specifics.
While Communities in Schools and some school districts try to reach students in need, the number of economically disadvantaged students in the state continues to grow.
Erwin-Barr said the local nonprofit provided services to 6,987 students last year in the seven school districts it serves. This year, it is serving about 7,000 students. Next year, Erwin-Barr said she expects the regional organization to surpass that number.
"We only have so many employees, but we try to serve as many students as we can," said Erwin-Barr. "So we try to provide service to the students with the biggest need."
Kevin Moody, another CIS site director at Killeen High School, said it was essential for organizations and districts to meet the growing need among its young pupils.
"These students want to succeed just as much as any other students, but they have some other challenges and barriers that can hinder them," said Moody. "We need to remove those obstacles and give these kids the confidence to succeed."
Contact Chris McGuinness at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568.
Number of economically disadvantaged students in Texas
Overall state numbers
2007: 2.5 million
2008: 2.5 million
2009: 2.6 million
2010: 2.8 million
2011: 2.9 million
Killeen Independent School District
Copperas Cove Independent
Source: All information gathered from reports by the Texas Education Agency's annual Academic Excellence Indicator System.