A new report written by Southern Education Foundation Program Officer Steve Suitts details the high percentages of low income students in the south as compared with other regions in the nation.
"We wanted to document where we are now as far as children in poverty in the south and address that regionally by bringing this to the forefront," said Lauren Veasey, SEP associate program officer.
The report called "A New Majority: Low Income Students in the South's Public Schools" looked at how the percentage of low income students in the South has steadily increased from 1989 to 2006 as well as the implications of the growing population of impoverished students in the region.
Compared to the nation
The national average of low income students is 46 percent.
In the report, the southern region is comprised of 15 states and the average percentage of low income students for those states stands at 54 percent, or 8 percentage points higher than the national average.
This figure is seven percentage points higher than the region with the second highest low income students - the west with 47 percent of students coming from poor households. Both the Midwestern and northeastern region report 36 percent of their students as from low income families.
Out of the 15 states in the southern region, 11 have more than half of their students coming from low income households. In the west, only three states had 50 percent or more of their students categorized as low income.
No state in the northeast or Midwest has more than half of their students living in low income households.
The number of low income students also has significantly increased across the nation since 2000.
In 2000, four states - Mississippi (63 percent), Louisiana (60 percent), New Mexico (51 percent) and Kentucky (51 percent) - had more than 50 percent destitute students.
Six years later, the number of states with more than half of their student population categorized as low income had jumped to 14 - including Georgia.
Louisiana (84 percent), Mississippi (75 percent), New Mexico and Florida (both 62 percent) currently have the highest percentages of poor students.
Georgia's most current figures show 52 percent of the state's students come from low income households.
In the southern region, Georgia fares better than Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. While, Georgia's average is two percentage points better than the south's average, it is six more than the national average.
The smallest counties (less than 1,000 students) in Georgia log the highest percentage of low income students. The highest percentage recorded in Georgia is 94 percent low-come - shared by Baker, Clay, Quitman, Taliaferro and Warren counties.
Fayette and Forsyth counties reported the lowest percentages, both with 14 percent. Both of those counties house more than 20,000 students.
Out of the Georgia's 159 counties, 118 have more than 50 percent low income students, 36 have 25 to 50 percent and only five have less than 25 percent.
In Newton County, 52 percent of the school system's students come from low income families.
Out of the six counties surrounding Newton County, only one - Jasper County (61 percent) - has more impoverished students.
Thirteen of the county's 20 schools have more than 50 percent low income students.
County schools with more than 60 percent low income students are Middle Ridge Elementary, Clements Middle, West Newton Elementary, Ficquett Elementary, Heard-Mixon Elementary and Porterdale Elementary.
The school within the system with the highest percentage of low-income students is Middle Ridge Elementary with a staggering 89 percent.
Veasey of the SEF said the recent increases in impoverished students in the South can be attributed to a number of factors.
Reasons include an increase in the Hispanic and black populations - demographics with higher birth rates - of the region, high unemployment rates and high pre-existing rates of southern poverty.
"Also, we definitely saw differences in per-pupil expenditures on students in the south," Veasey said.
For example, several states' lowest per student expenditures exceed Mississippi's highest per student expenditures.
"What we've seen in states and systems with higher percentages of low income students are differences in the academic achievement," Veasey said, "such as lower scores on national achievement exams as well as state exams."
Three of the county's schools with the highest percentages of low income students failed to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP), which are measurable objectives reviewed by the state as part of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, within the past three years having to offer school choice to families.
Economically disadvantaged students not only post lower scores on standardized tests but also are more likely to drop out of school because of too many courses failed or because they feel they need to earn money by working instead of attending school.
"Low educational achievement leads to low pay and it's a cycle that just keeps repeating itself," Veasey said.
Joe Gheesling, principal of Newton High School, said low income students traditionally struggle with academics for a number of reasons which usually include both parents working full-time and lack of exposure to resources such as reference books or computer access at home.
Schools are then challenged with meeting the needs of those students as well as basic needs such as providing hot meals.
Middle Ridge Principal Karen Crowder also pointed to the fact that many low income students come from renting households. When parents find a better deal they move families - sometimes across school zoning lines, which leads to higher transient rates.
"Research shows that when children stay in a school, they function better when receiving consistent services from the same faculty," Crowder said.
Crowder added the simple emotional stress associated with living in poverty causes students to struggle.
"They've got to be able to leave that baggage at the door and focus on academics," Crowder said, "and sometimes that is hard."
Crowder said Middle Ridge offers a variety of services for low income students and their families.
Middle Ridge students can eat free and reduced breakfast as well as lunch, and the school provides after school care on a sliding scale fee according to income.
Because the school failed to meet AYP for the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years, they had to offer supplemental services for students in the subject areas of reading and math.
"The tutor can even come to their home if they don't have transportation," Crowder said.
She said the application process to receive the supplemental services is quick and easy for parents.
Overhead projectors linked with computers at Middle Ridge also allow students, who otherwise would not be able to afford it, to go on virtual field trips.
In Georgia middle and high schools, newly installed graduation coaches work to identify students at risk of not graduating in four years or at all and make sure they are supported with school services that will put them on the path to a diploma.
"Here at Newton, we work with the parents to implement innovative initiatives aimed at providing more credit recovery and remedial opportunities to help these students keep up with their peers," Gheesling said. "This requires teachers to spend considerable time before and after the normal school day providing one-on-one instruction to at-risk student, because we truly believe that our mission is to provide every child every chance to succeed in school."
Veasey said southern states should set a minimum amount of funding given to schools to even out the disparity in per pupil spending from region to region.
Crowder said school boards should look carefully at how school-zone lines are drawn to create an even mix of low, middle and high class student enrollment.
She added planning and zoning commissions also should examine what type of housing they allow to cluster in certain areas making it impossible for school boards to create a diverse student population in each school.
Most important according to Crowder, is for residents to keep abreast of what is going on with schools and students in their community.
"Unfortunately, this is a societal problem that schools have little influence to change," Gheesling said. "Hopefully, providing these children with the best education possible will help them out of the cycle of poverty."