The city of Wildwood again had the highest percentage of impoverished school-age children in the state last year, U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Tuesday show.

Wildwood has held that rank since 2008, when it overtook the Bridgeton School District. Over that time, the city’s percentage of poor students has risen from

39 percent to 46 percent, for a total of more than 300 children ages 5 to 17 years old.

The fact that the city retained its hold of that unwelcome distinction did not surprise Superintendent Dennis Anderson. He said his students are courteous and willing to learn, but their studies suffer because they come to school hungry and return to an empty home because their parents are working two part-time jobs to survive.

“They don’t have the social and economic advantages that the middle class and above does,” said Wildwood Superintendent Dennis Anderson, “and in many ways it breaks your heart.”

The Vineland School District had the highest number of impoverished children in The Press of Atlantic City coverage area with an estimated 2,300, ranking it 14th statewide, although that number had dropped since 2007 from 2,550. Atlantic City was ranked 18th with 2,063 children in poverty.

Poverty is defined using a set of income thresholds varying by family size and composition.

Nationwide, a fifth of the nation’s counties — 653 of 3,142 — saw the poverty rate for school-age children increase significantly from 2007 through 2010. Median household income dropped significantly in 735 counties during that time, while increasing in only 78 counties nationwide.

About 24 percent of Cumberland County’s school-age children were living in poverty last year, the highest concentration in the state. Ocean County and Cape May counties had about 17 percent, while Atlantic County had about 16 percent.

The figures come from the 2010 Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates, which combines data from the American Community Survey, federal tax information, records on food assistance programs and Census population estimates.

“It’s not surprising that the economy has resulted in more impoverished children,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Those at the bottom tend to stay at the bottom.”

Zalkind said the effects of poverty are wide ranging, affecting a child’s health, social well-being and performance in school.

Those problems tend to compound each other, too. An empty stomach or a toothache because of lack of dental care can distract a student in school, as could worries about what is happening at home.

“Any child who isn’t comfortable in their setting, perhaps because of their hunger, perhaps because their home situation isn’t ideal, it affects their ability to focus on their educational opportunities,” said Walt Whitaker, superintendent of the Buena Regional School District, where 14 percent of students were impoverished last year.

A dramatic gap on test-score performance between poor children and their more advantaged peers remains.

On state tests last year, impoverished students, identified as those receiving free and reduced-price lunches, lagged 20 or 30 points behind their peers in the percentage of passing in certain grades.

“It is a great divide,” Anderson said. “Don’t let anybody kid you.”

New Jersey, as a whole, ranks near the top of the nation in terms of median income. Aside from scattered areas of poverty, the state’s children fair far better than those in the South and Midwest, where the country’s poverty is most concentrated, the Census data show.

But the areas stricken by the worst poverty statewide tend to remain impoverished every year, and the problems there are as deep as in the counties and school districts anywhere else in the country.

In Atlantic City, school superintendent Fred Nickles said his administration has pushed to improve facilities for its disadvantaged students and raise their test scores, but in many cases the problems of poverty continue to hold down their students in ways the schools cannot affect.

Shootings outside the schools that cause lockdowns, students coming to school without breakfast and other issues all distract from a proper education.

“We’re trying to make the positive improvements in the school district for our students to become well educated,” he said, “but at the same time we need to see those same improvements from the city.”

Education officials say the slumping economy has deepened problems for South Jersey’s children. With more area parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet, many households could lack the support system to nurture a child’s education.

“The economic downturn was a significant set back, not only for the state as a whole but particularly impoverished families,” said Zalkind, “so whatever progress we were beginning to make has been set back.”

Contact Lee Procida:

609-457-8707