According to the recently released 2012-2013 school report card, 43 percent of Saugerties Central School District students are considered economically disadvantaged. This figure is determined by the number of students whose families participate in economic assistance programs, such as the free and reduced price lunch program or SSI.
During the July School Board meeting, business administrator Lissa Jilek noted that this figure had “increased significantly” over the past few years. In fact, compared to a decade ago, the number has doubled. During the 2003-2004 school year, only 20 percent of students qualified for free or reduced price lunch.
“A hungry child cannot learn,” Trustee Florence Hyatt noted after Jilek’s presentation.
The free and reduced price lunch program is meant to address this by providing a hot meal to those students whose families meet the income guidelines. For example, children from a family of four with an annual income of $23,850 or less can receive free meals at school. A family of four with an income of up to $44,123 qualifies for those meals at a reduced cost.
Federal legislation, through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, is being implemented in school cafeterias to make those meals more nutritious.
High school guidance counselor Michael Catalano said there is a correlation between poverty and the drop-out rate. Students who are economically disadvantaged are often living with parents who have to work multiple jobs, and are not home with them. This puts them at higher risk for dropping out.
Although Catalano says the drop-out rate in the Saugerties school district, at three percent, is keeping pace with the rates at districts with similar demographics, there is room for improvement. He says one possibility is letting students know there are different educational opportunities earlier in their schooling, so they know success is not only measured by a four-year college degree, which is unrealistic for some.
A number of those students classified as economically disadvantaged are without stable homes. Some are living with relatives after losing their own homes. Others are living in even more transient shelters, such as hotels, or frequently move from place to place as space becomes available.
Such instability makes it difficult to focus. Catalano says it is important for these students to connect with the counselors at school. It is the guidance counselor’s job to keep students’ mental health stabilized so they can learn and “mentally stay in the game.”
The guidance office works with local and state agencies, such as the Department of Social Services and Harbour Light, to help meet students’ needs, though many of these services are inundated with adolescents in need of support and are understaffed.
Mount Marion sixth-grade teacher Charlene Fraske, who has seen a number of students living at the Wenton Motel during her tenure, agrees that it is crucial for these students to have a support in the school, whether it is a classroom teacher or a social worker. She said it’s important to celebrate these students’ successes, even something small like a student showing up to school regularly after frequent absences.