WILDWOOD — Classes at the Glenwood Avenue Elementary School in Wildwood won’t start until almost 8 a.m., but by 7:30 a.m. on a recent Monday the cafeteria was already filled with children eating cereal, muffins and milk.

Almost every child at the school is eligible for the federally subsidized free and reduced-fee meal program, so the school offers it free to all children and about 90 percent show up early each day.

“Having breakfast is great,” special education teacher Jason Fuscellaro said. “Being hungry will set these kids off. They need to eat before they can learn.”

Almost 450,000 students are eligible statewide for the meal program, generating about $300 million in subsidies from the federal program in 2011. Enrollment in the program is also the basis for calculating extra “at-risk” state aid. But the state Education Department wants to research other methods and, in the Education Funding Report released last month, questions whether disadvantaged students should even be presumed to be educationally at risk.

Even with its beachfront ratables, Wildwood gets almost half of its funding from the state. Other socio-economically struggling districts, such as Pleasantville, Bridgeton, Vineland and Millville, get more than 70 percent of their money as state aid, with about another 10 percent coming from federal programs for disadvantaged children.

Wildwood has the highest rate of child poverty in the state, according to the 2011 U.S. Census estimates. Staff at the Glenwood Avenue School say anyone who questions the need for extra services, or how hard they work to provide them, should put down the test scores and just come visit the school.

“I have an 11-year-old who was telling me how to make fried chicken,” Fuscellaro said. “His mom works nights, so he cooks. He’s not mad or upset about it. It’s just what he does. But you can tell he’s feeling the pressure of that responsibility.”

Work is scarce in February and many parents juggle part-time jobs to make ends meet. Unemployment in Cape May County was 14 percent in December, the highest rate in the state. Winter rentals provide housing for now, but come May, just as state testing starts, families will have to move. Others are sharing homes with multiple family members, or living in motels. Housing instability is a chronic problem.

Mondays are always busy for school nurse Cindy Fritz, who quickly checks a student who’s been treated for lice, provides a bandage to a child who has peeled a cuticle raw and bleeding, discusses by phone whether a child with stitches can come to school, and takes the temperature of a child whose mother brought him in because he’s not feeling well.

“I was sick all weekend,” he tells Fritz as she takes his temperature. She advises taking him home, and gives the mother a store gift card so she can buy over-the-counter medication.

“Kids bring the weekend in with them,” said Fritz, who knows she’s often the only medical care some families have. She hoards gift cards donated over the holidays and stretches them out through the school year. Her office includes a rack of donated coats and bins of socks, hats and gloves. She has organized a dental clinic, eye exams and monthly visits by the food bank, and is developing a backpack program to send food home on Fridays with the neediest students.

About a third of the students do not speak English as their native language. The bilingual preschool’s colorful rugs display shapes, numbers and colors in Spanish and English.

In the first grade, bilingual class teacher Genevieve Sparano can usually speak English, but students still grapple with reading and spelling — a boy planning a story about a cheetah phonetically wrote “chita” on his paper.

Preschool has been a cornerstone of the effort to give poor children a head start on school, but the $633 million program is still limited to the 140 neediest districts statewide. As students played in different activity stations, teacher Linda Burgin “tested” individual students on their knowledge of shapes. One little boy doesn’t speak, so Burgin said the words and he pointed to the circle, rectangle and square.

“Before they can learn, their basic needs must be met,” she said. “We always let them know that they are safe and secure here.”

During lunch a small group of teachers talked about their role as surrogate parents. The Home and School Association is run by teachers who provide information on getting a library card and reading at home or joining the Little League or Cub Scouts.

“We want our families to be part of the community,” said Michael Menszak. Parents rely on the school to provide what they cannot.

Principal John Kummings said many families are always in survival mode, and the lack of stability can’t help but affect their children. When the children arrive under-schooled, teachers must teach them starting from where they are, not where the state says they should be.

A third of the students will move in or out of the school during the year. Some miss days or even weeks of school. Early literacy is crucial to success, and the school has added special remedial programs for struggling readers. So many students were placed in the program that every first and second teacher has now been trained so reading specialist Joan Osborne can focus on the students having the most difficulty.

“These children do not have the same opportunities,” fourth-grade teacher Josephine Sharpe said. “But the things they need the most, like extra tutoring and after-school programs, are what gets cut when the funding is cut. But these kids have aspirations. They want to learn.”

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241