Fayette County's public schools are closing in on a milestone that no one is happy about.
District figures show that, as of January, 49.4 percent of students enrolled in the Fayette County Public Schools were receiving free or reduced-cost school meals, based on their families' low incomes.
Putting it another way, that means nearly half of the district's roughly 38,000 students are living at or near poverty level. And officials say it could be only a matter of time before that figure hits 50 percent.
District officials have not conducted a formal analysis, but they cite several factors in the rising percentage: increased enrollment in recent years, more single-family households, more children being raised by grandparents or other relatives. But they say the main culprit is the national economic downturn that wiped out an estimated 7.9 million U.S. jobs starting in late 2007. Conditions are slowly improving, but large numbers remain out of work, and some economists contend that many lost jobs might never return.
"It's kind of a shock for Lexington-Fayette County, which traditionally has been a more affluent part of our state," Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said. "But it is a reflection of the times we are living in, as far as the number of people who are out of work or in lower-paying positions, which leaves many of them where they can't make ends meet."
The situation promises to pose stiff challenges for the school system, Shelton said, both in meeting students' physical needs and in continuing to boost educational achievement. He said that low-income students often struggle in class as a direct result of their economic disadvantages and that they need help to flourish academically.
"If those basic needs are not met, we can't reach the levels of learning that we're trying to reach," Shelton said.
As recently as September 2007, 37.2 percent of Fayette County Schools' students were on free or reduced lunch. The number rose to 41.8 percent the next month, and it has climbed ever since.
The same trend has continued across Kentucky, and the nation as a whole. In 1999-2000, 48 percent of Kentucky's school children received free or reduced meals. By 2009-2010, it was 55 percent. According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, virtually every state has seen sharp increases in the percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch programs over the past several years. Some have seen double-digit increases. Arkansas went from 45 percent in 1999-2000 to 60 percent in 2009-2010. Mississippi, which was at 63 percent, reached 71 percent in 2010, the highest of any state.
Even though it is closing in on 50 percent, Fayette County trails many Kentucky school districts. Many districts are over 60 percent and some exceed 70 percent. The Owsley County Schools and the Covington Independent Schools are at 88 percent; Bell County is at 83 percent; and Breathitt County schools are at 80 percent, according to figures by the state department of education.
Officially, the recession ended in June 2009, and Fayette County's unemployment rate fell to 6.5 percent in December 2011. But directors of family resource centers at Lexington's public schools say they're still seeing the downturn's fallout in the form of more children and more families needing help.
"We have families coming in now and asking for assistance that never came forward before," said Temicula Allen, director of the family resource center at Lansdowne Elementary School.
The Lansdowne area is not generally thought of as struggling. But the percentage of Lansdowne Elementary students on free or reduced lunch is up by slightly more than 17 percentage points since 2007, even though the school's enrollment has stayed roughly the same.
This is happening as state funding for family resource centers across Kentucky is being slashed to save money. In raw numbers, resource center funding has been cut about $4 million since 2008 or around 9 percent, according to recent calculations by a state education group. Another cut is expected this year.
Jill Blackman, who coordinates the family resource center serving Cassidy Elementary and Morton Middle School, said her budget has been cut by half over the past few years.
"We're located right near downtown in Chevy Chase, and we've seen an increase in need, especially at Morton," Blackman said. "Lots of families are requesting help with basic needs like food, clothing and scholarships for their students. You have stay-at-home moms now having to take part-time jobs, or families having to go to two incomes to get by. Some are struggling even where both parents are working."
Meanwhile, more than a dozen Fayette public schools now participate in so-called "backpack" programs to provide free food for needy kids to take home at the close of school on Fridays so they will have nutritious meals over the weekend. The programs operate through God's Pantry or similar groups, in cooperation with Lexington church and other organizations.
Program officials said that without the backpacks, some students might not have enough to eat over the weekend. Some parents might not have enough money to put food on the table, officials said. Or, if parents are working on weekends, students might be left in the care of older siblings who lack cooking skills.
"Having that extra food to kind of get them through the weekend really makes a difference," said Monica Hall, director of the family resource center at the Booker T. Washington Academy. The school sends 60 backpacks of food home each weekend, and it has 45 students on a waiting list, Hall said.
"The kids depend on it," she said. "They'll ask, 'Miss Hall, is my food coming on Friday?' You're talking kindergarten kids all the way through fifth grade ... wanting their food."
Marty Flynn, child nutrition coordinator for the Fayette Schools, says school officials frequently get letters from families using the free-and-reduced lunch program.
"They say that they never thought they would have to use this program, but they're glad it's available," she said.
Flynn said she actually expected Fayette County's free and reduced level to hit 50-percent before now. It still might before the school year ends, she said.
Poverty directly affects children's education, Shelton says.
"You can look at the statistics; students living in poverty don't have the same opportunities as other students," he said. "They don't have the same vocabulary in their homes, so they don't get exposed to as much before they start school, or even while they're in school.
"They don't have the opportunities to take trips and have the same experiences other students have. They don't get books read to them, or have as many opportunities to read. All those things add up to more and more barriers to education."
Ultimately, Shelton contends, it's an issue for the entire community.
"All of us will have to play a part in dealing with it, because it's going to affect our whole community," he said.
Herald-Leader reporter Linda J. Johnson contributed to this story. Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.