Schools Struggle As Payson Child Poverty Rate Soars

Share of low-income families doubles at Payson Elementary


A stunning 79 percent of students at Payson Elementary School live at or near the poverty line, prompting the Payson Unified School District to convert the school into a full Federal Title I school, to give kids extra help.

The percentage of PES students from families that qualify for free and reduced school lunches has jumped from 44 percent four years ago to 79 percent this year, prompting Superintendent Casey O’Brien to take the issue to the school board.

Payson schools have received federal, anti-poverty Title I funds for years.

But when only 44 percent of the students qualified for the extra help, the school used tutoring and break-out classes to help the Title I students. Now that virtually all of the students qualify, the school will have more flexibility in administering the program.

Unfortunately, the change in designation won’t bring in any more money.

It will, however, allow PES administration to distribute aides and resources more broadly, said PES principal Donna Haught.

Up until now, PES could only address the needs of children falling significantly behind in reading and math by pulling them out of their classrooms for additional help. Now, an aide funded by Title I may work with a whole class if needed.

“We can focus on those students with intermediary needs, too,” said Haught.

The Title I schoolwide distinction comes just as elementary schools face tough new standards in the coming year.

In 2013, the Arizona Legislature will require school districts to hold back every third grade student who receives a “falls far below” score on their AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) test.

“When 40 percent of your students qualify for free and reduced lunches, it’s OK to target resources,” said O’Brien. “However, when close to 80 percent qualify, the problem is more spread out.”

O’Brien said research shows that families who don’t have the resources at home to support purchasing a computer, Internet access or books have a much harder time giving their children the early development foundation in reading and math they need.

The poverty rate for a family of four is $22,000 annually. Children from those families can qualify for free school lunches and breakfasts. Children can also get reduced price lunches with family incomes up to about $41,000 for a family of four. Working at a minimum wage job 40 hours a week brings in barely $1,000 per month.

Arizona now has the second highest poverty rate in the nation. The last census showed that 19 percent of Gila County families live below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent statewide and 14 percent nationally.

Imagine a single mother, without a college education working a minimum wage job. She would have to work two or three jobs to pay the bills. She has no money or time to expose her child to learning materials such as a computer with Internet access or to take them to the library.

Compare that single mother to a household with two parents with college degrees and good jobs. Between the two of them, they can find time to read to their child, take them on educational trips, afford a computer and Internet access — or pay for help to give their child early educational development.

When these two children come to school, the child of the single mother might never have read a book, while the child of the wealthier family already has the basics of reading down.

Designating PES as a Title I school will help teachers to find the time to assess their students’ needs, involve parents, and give struggling students more one-on-one time.

District staff member Susan Campbell served as the external facilitator during the year-long process to build consensus among the teachers, administrators and parents of PES.

She said once the school district consolidated the students in the kindergarten through second grade in one school, it made the process possible.

“This will allow us to have smaller classes with students who need help in one classroom,” she said.


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