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Ashland schools note spike in poverty-level students

ASHLAND — School Superintendent Juli Di Chiro has reported that significantly more students in the district are living at or below the federal poverty level this school year than last, with nearly one-third eligible for government-funded lunches.

The number of Ashland students who qualify for free lunch, meaning their families' incomes put them at or below the poverty level, has increased 24 percent, according to district data.

"I think this is a significant increase," Di Chiro told the School Board last week. "We are definitely seeing in our schools the impact of the recession and more families qualifying."

As a result, roughly a third of the district's students qualify for either free or reduced-price lunches.

Children from a family of four that makes $28,665 annually or less qualify for the free lunch program. Children from a family of four with an income at or below $40,793 per year, qualify for reduced-price lunches.

Districtwide, 907 students have qualified for free or reduced-price lunches this school year — 32 percent of the district. Last school year, 28 percent of the district qualified.

"Our numbers haven't jumped like that (in past years)," Di Chiro said Monday. "They've been holding fairly steady over the last five or six years."

Of those eligible, 115 students qualify for reduced lunches, while 792 qualify for free lunch. Ashland students who qualify for either program are also eligible to receive a free breakfast, served about 30 minutes before school starts.

"We would really like to see more families participate in the breakfast program," Di Chiro said. "We have fewer participate in breakfast than we do in lunch."

The district receives federal money for each free or reduced-price meal it serves.

The numbers of students receiving the lunch assistance increased at every district school, according to a district report.

Ashland High, John Muir, Bellview Elementary and Walker Elementary schools saw the highest increase in students qualifying for the programs.

At Walker, 60 percent of the student body qualifies — the highest percentage in the district.

The fact that the numbers increased at the high school speaks to the severity of the recession, Di Chiro said. Often older students are reluctant to apply for the program, she said.

"The fact that we saw a jump there says to me that we have seen some significant impacts on our families because of the economy," she said.

The number of Ashland students at the poverty level is likely even higher than the lunch program figures suggest, Di Chiro added.

"There are more students that would qualify that don't apply," she said.

Families can apply throughout the school year to participate in the free and reduced-price lunch program.

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226, or hguzik@dailytidings.com.