Suburban school districts are experiencing steady -- and in many cases staggering -- growth in their low-income student populations.
An analysis of Illinois State Report Card data for 83 school districts in the Daily Herald's circulation area shows poverty rates rose an average of 18 percentage points from 2000 to 2012.
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With the changing suburban landscape comes numerous challenges for educators.
Research shows families who live in poverty struggle to meet their children's basic needs in nutrition, health care and housing, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. Children often experience higher stress levels and can exhibit more severe behavioral and emotional problems, which can lead to lower achievement scores and higher dropout rates.
"It's fairly well-acknowledged these students are at risk," ISBE spokesman Matt Vanover said. "Poverty makes it more a challenge to get students prepared, and it takes additional resources to assist those students."
In many school districts, the growth of their low-income student populations has been substantial.
In 2000, only East Aurora Unit District 131 and Round Lake Unit District 116 identified at least one-third of students as low-income. None of the 83 districts' poverty rates were above 50 percent.
By last year, 23 school districts reported their low-income student populations exceeded one-third. And of those, 11 had poverty rates that topped 50 percent.The most drastic increase over that period came in West Chicago Elementary District 33, where the low-income population jumped to 76 percent from 23 percent. Superintendent Kathy Wolfe didn't respond to requests for comment.
The data shows a number of factors contributed to increases in District 33 and many others. For one, the economic recession caused already rising poverty rates to spike even higher beginning in about 2008.
The changing demographics of the suburbs also played a key role. Of the 10 school districts reporting the biggest 12-year gains in poverty rates, all experienced double-digit-percentage growth among their Hispanic student populations. Nine of those school districts reported an increase in their limited-English proficient, or LEP, population as well.
In District 33, the Hispanic population grew to 76 from 51 percent, and the LEP population jumped to 53 percent from 29.
Eight of the top 10 districts in poverty growth are in DuPage County, where the Hispanic population rose 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to a 2011 report by the county's Department of Economic Development and Planning. Over the same period, the number of county residents living in poverty doubled, U.S. Census data shows.
Bensenville Elementary District 2, where the poverty rate skyrocketed to 62 from 9 percent since 2000, is home to a lot of multifamily rental housing and hourly and low-paying industrial jobs, Superintendent James Stelter said.
He said the makeup of the community hasn't changed all that much and believes the low-income population was underrepresented in the early 2000s. The district's poverty rate was affected by its enrollment 10 years ago in the decades-old National School Lunch Program, he added. Students who qualify to receive free and reduced-price lunches are counted toward a district's poverty rate.
"Some folks are so darn proud that it takes a while to admit, 'I need help,'" Stelter said. "I always thought we've had a great need and didn't have the staffing to find them."
What's called poor
To qualify as low-income, students ages 3 to 17 can meet a number of criteria. They can be from families receiving public aid, living in institutions for neglected or delinquent children, supported in foster homes with public funds, or eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches.
The vast majority of students are labeled low-income because of their participation in the federal lunch program.
To qualify for free meals, a family's income can be no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For fiscal year 2014, the maximum is $30,615 for a family of four. For reduced-price meals, income can be no more than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $43,568 for a family of four.
Many proponents of school finance reform say the rise in poverty rates is exacerbated by the current formula driving school funding, which relies largely on property tax revenue to the benefit of affluent areas. The result is often a significant difference between what poorer and wealthier districts spend on students.
Of the 10 districts with the smallest gains in poverty rates from 2000 to 2012, instructional spending per pupil averaged $7,938 and operational spending averaged $13,742. Of the 10 districts with the biggest gains, instructional and operational spending averaged $6,982 and $11,643, respectively.
Bensenville's Stelter said that as poverty increases, the resources schools provide should go up exponentially.
"Illinois still lags behind many other states in terms of providing equitable funding for children," Stelter said. "I believe there's too much reliance on property taxes."
Helping to offset the discrepancy is a component of the general state aid allocation known as the supplemental poverty grant. The state pays a greater amount per pupil as the percentage of a district's low-income increases.
For example, school districts at 0 to 15 percent poverty receive $355 per student, whereas school districts at 100 percent poverty receive nearly $3,000 per student. Even the wealthiest school districts receive some poverty grant funding under the formula.
Since fiscal year 2003, the poverty grant has more than quadrupled from $388 million to $1.7 billion.
Recently, districts haven't received all of the state funding they're due under the existing formula. Illinois lawmakers haven't appropriated enough, so ISBE has been forced to prorate General State Aid and supplemental poverty payments. Districts received 89 percent of their claim amount in both categories last year.
Stelter, whose district has been going through a restructuring process that includes the renovation and consolidation of schools, agreed with ISBE's spokesman that poverty presents numerous challenges.
"Kids need so much more when they walk in our doors," Stelter said. "It's a catch-up game from day one."
He said District 2 has put resources into more bilingual social workers, bilingual technology and reading specialists.
Likewise, nearby Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, whose poverty rate rose to 52 from 22 percent, has focused on building up its dual language program in which classrooms are composed of half native English and half native Spanish speakers. Most instruction is in Spanish.
Superintendent Art Fessler said the district has embraced increasing diversity.
"Kids get better cultural experiences," Fessler said. "It's like a microcosm of the real world, which will prepare kids to be successful in life."