By Jennifer Brooks, The Tennessean
Thanksgiving dinner, for some students at Maplewood High School, was served in the same place they got most of their other hot meals during the week - the school cafeteria.
helped us tremendously," said Dorothy Lewis, mother of two Maplewood
students, who lost her home and has turned to the school for help with
everything from food and clothing for her teenagers to tutoring lessons
for herself so she can help them with their homework.
More and more schoolchildren are slipping into poverty in Middle Tennessee, and more and more schools are scrambling to help.
school is difficult enough anyway, without having to worry about how
you're going to eat or where you're going to sleep tonight," said Joy
Pillow-Jones, director of the high school's family resource center.
"It's as bad as I've ever seen it."
New census data released this week found a surge in the number of school-age children living in poverty.
Tennessee registered one of the highest rates of school district-level
poverty in the nation. A dismal 24 percent of school-age children in the
state were living in poverty in 2010, earning the state the No. 8 spot on the Census Bureau's list of the 10 states with the highest rate of school-age poverty. On the list of the states with the 10 lowest median incomes, Tennessee ranks No. 6.
the number of children in need grows, schools have been forced to take
on roles far beyond teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.
fact that Maplewood has a United Way family resource center is just
another sign of the times. The center, one of three at high schools
around the city, offers a food pantry, donated clothing and other services to help students and families in need.
lot of people think that if you're happy and smiling, you're not in
trouble," said Cherrelle Lee, who graduated from Maplewood last year. A
mother of two while still in high school, Lee overcame her family's financial
troubles and all the issues that come with teen parenthood and is now
enrolled at Nashville State Community College as a freshman, studying
"People assume a lot of things about teen parents.
I'm not supposed to have the success I've had," she said. "But you can
succeed, especially if there's someone there to help you."
Middle Tennessee, children are coming to school hungry and worried and
without winter coats. Their parents have lost their jobs or lost their
homes. Often, it's the school that steps in to help families find the
resources to help them pay the heating bill or get Christmas presents
for the children.
"In our district, we have many families doubling
up (with relatives or friends) or living in campgrounds," said Julie
Harrison, federal programs supervisor for Wilson County Schools, where
an estimated 300 families within the school district are homeless. "You
don't realize what a huge need there is. ... You can't sit down and learn
if you're hungry."
By the Census Bureau's estimate, more than one
out of every four children between the ages of 5 and 17 within the Metro
Nashville school district are living in poverty. Five years earlier,
the average was one out of every five.
When the Lewis family lost
their home and moved in with a friend across town, Maplewood paid for
bus passes to get them to class. When they had to leave most of their
possessions behind, the school was there to provide everything from
clothes to toiletries to counseling to help them cope with the stress.
Lewis gives back by volunteering at the school, helping other students and families in need.
wherever I'm needed," she said, ticking off a few of the upcoming
projects - the clothing drive, the shoe drive, the canned goods that are
in short supply in the school pantry that's been picked clean by hungry
Every school district in the region registered a sharp increase in
poverty rates: Williamson went from a 3.6 percent poverty rate among its
school-age population in 2005 to 5.4 percent in 2010. Lebanon schools
went from 15.3 percent poverty to 20.6 percent; Rutherford County's
poverty rates jumped from 8.7 percent to 14.2 percent.
figures were drawn from census data, federal tax returns and
information about the number of families in each district using the
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - formerly known as food
stamps. The U.S. Department of Education and other federal and state
programs use this data to allocate resources.
Between 2007 and
2010, the Census Bureau found, the poverty rate for school-age children
increased 20 percent nationwide. Across the country, 653 counties saw a
significant increase in childhood poverty and only eight saw a
significant decrease. In Tennessee, Union County registered one of the
highest childhood poverty rates in the nation - 40 percent of school-age
children live in poverty in the rural East Tennessee county.
Lebanon and Murfreesboro schools all registered poverty rates higher
than the national average of 19.8 percent. But every school district is
feeling the strain.
Poverty is on the rise in Williamson County, home to the most
affluent residents in the state. But more than 5 percent of school-age
children in the county school district and almost 15 percent of the
students in the Franklin Special School District were living in poverty
Derwin Jackson is the executive director of the Franklin
Housing Authority, which operates nearly 300 units of public housing in
the city. Over the past few years, he said, inquiries have taken on a
new level of urgency. Prospective applicants are not able to wait months
for housing to become available, said Jackson, because foreclosures,
job loss and divorces brought on by financial stress are forcing their
"I know that I've gotten a lot more residents at least
calling (to ask about public housing) and they need it right away,"