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Gladys Lauriello didn’t realize her family was poor when she went to school in Wildwood. But now, as Lauriello works as principal in the same building where she attended class, she recognizes the signs of poverty that characterized her youth.
She wasn’t surprised to learn that U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday show that 36 percent of school-age children in Wildwood live in poverty. That’s the highest percentage among school districts in New Jersey.
“It’s probably a low estimate, frankly,” said Lauriello, the Wildwood High School principal.
New Jersey annually ranks at or near the top among the states in household income. But it has some of the poorest school districts in the country, according to The Press of Atlantic City analysis of the census poverty data. And area school districts, including Atlantic City, Pleasantville, Vineland and Bridgeton, number among the nation’s worst in terms of percent or number of children age 5 to 17 living in poverty.
The percentage of impoverished children increased in 70 percent of area school districts from 2007 to 2008. The number of children in poverty grew by 9 percent in Atlantic and Cape May counties and by 16 percent in Ocean County. The number in poverty increased by 5 percent statewide. The percentage of impoverished schoolchildren increased in two-thirds of districts statewide last year, although a number of them grew by less than a percentage point.
In terms of the percentage of children in poverty, Atlantic City and Bridgeton rank among the worst 10 percent of districts in the nation and Wildwood is in the worst 3 percent. Thirty-two New Jersey districts rank among the 10 percent nationwide with the highest number of impoverished children. Those include Bridgeton, Millville and Pleasantville from this area. Atlantic City and Vineland rank in the worst 5 percent.
Bucking the trend
While Cumberland County districts have high poverty rates, at least they bucked the regional and statewide trend of increasing numbers. The number and percentage in poverty decreased in every Cumberland County district last year, dropping by 31 percent. The change is possibly the result of new home construction in recent years and an influx of more affluent residents.
New Jersey’s large cities — Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden — had the highest numbers of children in poverty. However, Atlantic City had the 12th highest number. And Vineland was number 18.
Lauriello said having so many children in poverty presents challenges to the schools.
She said 90 percent of her students are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. The lunch program is a factor, as well as family income and population trends, in how the census estimates the number living below federal poverty levels. Lauriello said many students come from transient families, with some living in motels, and their needs are evident.
Teachers look for students who don’t have winter coats or gloves, which are provided by local relief groups. The school provides calculators to students and keeps the library open late so those without home computers can use school equipment. Breakfasts and after-school snacks are served in addition to lunches.
“The recent economic conditions have definitely hit us hardest,” Lauriello said. “If we know there is a child in need, we get help.”
Atlantic City Superintendent Fred Nickles knows many of his students come from poverty, but he was still surprised at how poorly the district ranked nationwide. Thirty percent of Atlantic City’s nearly 7,300 students are impoverished, the sixth highest percentage in the state.
Nickles said the poverty level requires additional services, both academic and social. But the progress the district has made in improving test scores shows that programs are working, even if families are struggling, he said.
“A lot of children don’t have the support system at home,” Nickles said. “There are so many single-parent families. And if the parent works, they may not be home for the child.”
He said children benefit from support offered through the schools’ Parent Centers, after-school programs and programs such as the Boys and Girls Club.
Other area districts with high percentages of impoverished students include Pleasantville at 21 percent, Buena Regional at 20 percent, Millville at 18 percent, Brigantine at 17.5 percent and Vineland at 17 percent.
In Millville, Parent-Teacher Association President Yvonne Mitchell said she hasn’t noticed any decrease in Cumberland County poverty.
“A lot of the kids we have live in the projects, they’re from low-income families,” the former Wood Elementary School teacher said. “In this area, a lot of people are less fortunate.”
For the past six years, the school has hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for students, fearing some would otherwise go without the holiday feast.
William Malpica talked about his family’s financial struggles as he waited for his stepsons Wednesday outside the Bacon School in Millville. The family has received welfare benefits since he lost his job more than a year ago. He said he visits the Labor Ready job placement service every morning in search of work.
Despite his family’s troubles, Malpica said, he teaches his children, Juan Shelton, 8, and Cameron Shelton, 7, to remain positive and to work hard. He said it has helped academically.
“My sons went from barely making it to being honor students,” he said.
In Wildwood, Glenwood Avenue Elementary School Principal John Kummings said poverty levels affect parental involvement, especially when both parents work.
“That’s less time to work with the schools. They can’t do homework with the child,” he said.
To combat that, Kummings said the school offers quality after-school programs. The district also reaches out to the large Hispanic population with bilingual notices and report cards.
Richard Stockton College has begun a community service initiative in the Atlantic City schools to support academic goals. Students from the college have helped support nursing and nutrition programs and have started gardens at two city schools.
“Schools cannot go it alone,” said Reva Curry, interim director of Community Partnerships at Stockton.
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