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Report shows many children struggling with poverty, hunger

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GREENSBORO — When schools closed Feb. 27 after a heavy snowfall, Peck Elementary Principal Francine Mallory and some of her team picked up bags of food that would have been sent home with about 100 of their neediest students.

They delivered that food to as many of those students as they could.

“We knew, the teachers knew, they needed their food,” Mallory said.

Child hunger is a reality seen at schools across the county, not just Peck.

Principals and teachers also see firsthand the other needs of students that stem from poverty — health care, warm clothing, mental health treatment and safe, stable housing.

Data released today by NC Child and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine show the state still struggles with child poverty as well.

The 20th annual Child Health Report Card grades North Carolina on 16 areas of child well-being ranging from health insurance coverage and prenatal care to rates of teen pregnancy and substance abuse.

Today experts will discuss the data, areas of concern and possible solutions at the annual Statewide Child Health Summit in Raleigh.

It’s not all bad news.

Fewer kindergartners have untreated tooth decay. High school graduation rates have improved.

The pregnancy rate for 15- to 17-year-old girls fell to 16.6 per 1,000 in 2012-13. It was 30.1 in 2008-09. The state’s overall child fatality rate fell to 56.5 per 100,000 in 2013 from 65.4 in 2009. (An earlier version of this story had incorrect information. Please see correction below.)

But child poverty has gotten worse. The rate for North Carolina rose to 25.2 percent in 2013 from 22.5 percent in 2009.

“Child poverty is really a foundational issue for children’s health,” said Rob Thompson, policy director for NC Child. “It’s connected to so many negative health outcomes that if we are really serious about improving children’s health, we’ve got to attack child poverty and family economic security in a meaningful way.”

Some solutions include the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, Thompson said. North Carolina used to have a state supplement to that tax credit but allowed it to expire last year.

Other solutions would include better access to affordable, stable housing and safe, high-quality childcare, he said.

“There are a lot of pressures and pitfalls for low-income working families,” he said. “When the margins are so slim, any dip or any loss of stable childcare coverage, transportation or housing can put those families and also their children into a tailspin.”

Child hunger

The lack of basic needs — food, health care, housing — often interfere with a child’s performance in school. That means schools with higher concentrations of poverty have to address outside factors that are barriers to learning.

To address growing rates of hunger, Guilford school officials plan to expand their summer meals program for students again this year.

Officials also measure poverty in a different way for a federal program meant to make it easier for students at high-needs schools to receive free meals. Instead of looking at a family’s income, they focus on the most extreme cases — numbers of students who are homeless, receiving public assistance, migrants or in foster care, said Jim Faggione, director of school nutrition services for Guilford schools.

At least 30,000 of Guilford’s more than 72,000 students fall into at least one of those categories.

Students at 58 of 127 schools, including Peck, now automatically receive free breakfast and lunch.

Getting two free meals at school is a relief for families, especially ones with more than one child, Mallory said.

But on weeks when school is closed for multiple consecutive days, she said, families may not be prepared to feed children the meals they would normally get at school.

Jimmi Williams has seen a growing number of struggling families through his role as executive director of Communities in Schools of Greater Greensboro, a nonprofit organization.

Last year, Williams took a fifth-grader to a United Way event to talk about Community in Schools’ African American male mentoring initiative.

During a question and answer session, someone asked the boy what he liked about the program besides having a mentor. The boy said he liked the food, referring to the program’s food pantry.

Then he explained, “We get to take food home and I don’t have to chew my fingernails.”

“And it stunned me. It absolutely stunned me,” Williams said. “It was a very matter-of-fact response.”

The boy wasn’t playing to the audience or making things up, Williams said.

After that meeting, Williams returned to his office and immediately started calling other organizations and Guilford school system leaders to tackle challenges of child hunger in the community.

The results of that work include a food pantry opened last month at Jackson Middle School.

Survival mode

Between 12 and 15 percent of Jackson students are homeless, stay with other families or otherwise lack stable housing, Principal Lance Stokes said.

The school relies on partnerships with area community groups to provide students with mental health care and dental and vision screenings, among other things.

School officials keep on hand everything from basic classroom supplies to hygiene kits for children that include toothbrushes and toothpaste.

“All those things are small factors that make a big difference when you sit in the classroom trying to learn,” Stokes said.

“There is just an understanding that you have kids in survival mode because (their) parents live in survival mode.”

It’s increasingly difficult to help those children.

Enrollment at Jackson has increased. Funding has gone down.

“We’ve constantly done more with less each year,” said Stokes, who has been Jackson’s principal for six years. “I’ve got less funding than I did six years ago, but yet we still have some of the same challenges and greater challenges because now we have more students.”

Besides hunger, Mallory said, health care is another need she sees with her students at Peck.

“I can remember vividly a student who had a toothache for a week and came to school and was just miserable,” Mallory said.

A school nurse works at Peck once a week. She can advise students or bandage minor wounds, but not much more.

The state got a D on the Child Health Report Card for the ratio of school nurses to students — one nurse for every 1,177 students.

Guilford County Schools has 33 school nurses, one for every 2,183 students, said Robin Bergeron-Nolan, director of health services and counseling services. That number does not include the schools for students with more severe disabilities.

Experts say one solution to the state’s child health concerns could be more comprehensive partnerships between schools, community and faith-based groups.

Mallory once worked as a counselor in a rural Georgia school where agencies offered social services, medical care and mental health care for children and their families — all within the school building. Those partnerships not only met the families’ needs, but also brought parents into the school, something educators say is critical to boosting achievement.

That type of collaboration, Mallory said, is “what I would love to have.”

Contact Marquita Brown at (336) 373-7002, and follow @mbrownNR on Twitter.

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