In 11 Southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida, a significant increase in the number of poor children attending public school has sent district officials scurrying for solutions on how to best educate kids who are coming from economically disadvantaged homes.
"The future of the South's ability to have an educated population is going to depend on how well we can improve these students' education," said Steve Suitts, a program coordinator with the Atlanta-based Southern Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that focuses on Southern educational issues and conducted the study.
In places like Memphis, where roughly 80 percent of students come from
low-income homes, that has meant adopting models that address teaching
children in poverty. In Florida's Miami-Dade County, where 61 percent of
students are on free or reduced-price lunch, that has meant strengthening
efforts to improve all students' math and reading scores and curb dropout
Twenty years ago, Mississippi was the only state in the country with such a high percentage of poor public-school students. However, as textile mills shut down in the Carolinas, Appalachian coal mines cut workers and a recession swept the nation, families in the South were especially hard hit, the Southern Education Foundation report found.
Also hitting the South disproportionately were federal cutbacks in anti-poverty programs, the region's higher rates of underemployment and the increased birthrates of Hispanic and Black children, who are statistically more likely than their White peers to be born into poverty.
Now, a majority of public-school students are considered low-income in a total of 14 states, including 11 in the South. The South shows tremendous variability, with 84 percent of students considered low-income in Louisiana, 75 percent in Mississippi, 62 percent in Florida and 49 percent in North Carolina.