More than half of area schools K-3 grades qualify for state poverty class size funding

A preliminary list of elementary schools that qualify for “poverty school” designation has been released by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and, among 38 Grays Harbor and Pacific county schools with classes for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, more than half meet the standard and as a result qualify for additional state funding resources.

“Schools that are identified as high poverty receive enhanced funding for their students in grades kindergarten through three,” said Becky McLean with the office’s school appointment and financial services division.

The poverty school designation is based on the number of students in grades kindergarten through six who receive free or partially funded school lunches. If more than 50 percent of students in a school receive those benefits, the school is considered a poverty school. There are currently 21 of those schools on the state’s preliminary report in Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. At one of them, Lake Quinault Elementary, every student in grades kindergarten through six qualifies for subsidized meals, according to the state report.

“We are about 100 percent of students who get free and reduced cost lunches,” said Lake Quinault School District Superintendent Rich DuBois. “Most of the schools in the county are going to qualify for the poverty designation, especially up here. Most families are working at or about the poverty level.”

Free and reduced price school meals are federal programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Qualification for the programs is based on household size and annual household income. Qualification standards are calculated by multiplying the year 2016 federal income poverty guidelines by 1.30 for free lunches and 1.85 for reduced price meals and rounding the result upward to the next whole dollar. In the current 2016-17 school year, the federal poverty guideline for a household of four is an annual income of $24,300. Children in households containing four people are eligible for free lunches if the household income is $31,590 or less. For reduced price lunches $44,955 is the maximum qualifying annual income.

Schools in the Aberdeen School District that qualify for additional funds include AJ West Elementary and Robert Gray Elementary — both with poverty levels of just under 80 percent — and Stevens Elementary at 75 percent and McDermoth Elementary at just under 70 percent. Central Park Elementary is the only one of the five Aberdeen School District elementary schools under the poverty distinction, but just barely at nearly 47 percent.

Of the five elementary schools in the Hoquiam School District, only two received the poverty school designation: Emerson Elementary at 58.75 percent and Lincoln Elementary at just a shade over 66 percent.

The list of schools recently released by the state is preliminary. School districts have through the end of March to review their numbers and provide the state with any updates.

Montesano’s two elementary schools came in at just under 40 percent and as a result did not qualify for the additional funding.

Many of the higher poverty levels are found in more rural parts of Grays Harbor and Pacific counties. In Grays Harbor County, Ocosta Elementary’s poverty student percentage is more than 86, Oakville Elementary just under 75 percent, and Mary M. Knight at more than 75 percent. In Pacific County, Chauncey Davis Elementary in South Bend has a reported poverty level of just under 83 percent, Ocean Park at more than 77 percent, and Naselle Elementary is just under 60 percent.

“There is no application process for these funds. If the district meets the designated state threshold for poverty level, you would receive the funding,” said Elyssa Louderback, Director of Finance for the Aberdeen School District.

For the Aberdeen school district, the goal is to use any funds, when available, to maximize their impact in grades kindergarten through three.

“We are trying to maximize the funding to benefit those lower grades,” said Aberdeen School Superintendent Tom Opstad. Average class sizes currently in the district for grades kindergarten through three vary, but Opstad gave as an example Central Park, with a class size of about 17 per teacher. “It becomes a little challenging if we have a class size of 21 in two or three cases,” he added. The challenge is not realistically being able to allocate resources to split that class of 21 into two 10-student classes, well below the state-mandated maximum class size.

Since the Aberdeen district is already in the general class size range dictated by state law, the goal becomes ensuring students are given a good start in the early years of their education.

“We really just want to make sure we can catch them up in language and math as they enter school,” said Opstad. “If they come from a background where they weren’t read to a lot, or where they have not had preschool, it’s important to catch them up in grades K-2.” This approach gives students from low income backgrounds a better chance of getting the same quality of education later on as students from a better economic background.

Just how much funding that will be is still not clear and won’t be until the Legislature comes to an agreement on complete state school funding. Regardless, for a small school like Lake Quinault Elementary, any funding could help the school better serve their students.

“We are a poverty district, I’m not going to sugar coat it,” said DuBois. “We try to make sure our kids get the best education they can. It is our duty to provide these kids with the things they need. They don’t have a lot, but we give them everything we can.” Part of the school’s program includes taking students outside the classroom, and outside the area. “We try to get them out to expose them to things outside of Quinault, so they see if they get a good education there are possibilities out there.”

Lake Quinault Elementary only has 89 students in grades kindergarten through six; of those, nearly 75 percent are in grades kindergarten through three. Because of the small number of students in each class, the school currently has combined grades, meaning one teacher for every two grades — kindergarten and first, second and third, and fourth and fifth. “We’re looking now to go to one teacher per grade level,” and additional funding could further help the district achieve that goal, DuBois said.

Initiative 1351, approved by voters by a 51 to 49 percent margin in 2014, was designed to create smaller class sizes and placed the priority on schools with high levels of student poverty. The initiative called on a reduction in kindergarten through third grade class sizes to 17, 25 in grades four through 12. It also provided that schools in which more than half the students received free or reduced price meals from the schools, that class size would be even smaller – 15 in the case of kindergarten through third grade. The initiative did not provide a means of funding its provisions and, with a price tag of more than $2 billion, the Legislature in 2015 suspended most of the provisions of I-1351, citing lack of a funding source. They did, however, keep the kindergarten through third grade poverty school class size provision of the initiative.