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In the last five years, Hamilton County managed to woo Volkswagen, help Tennessee snag a $500 million federal grant and invest millions of dollars in at least six brand-new school buildings.

The telltale signs of progress and promise of economic prosperity are everywhere.

But what often goes unnoticed is that a greater number of families are slipping into poverty.

Since 2005, Hamilton County has seen a 20 percent increase in the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches - the measure used by the federal government to determine how much financial assistance a school or school system receives for poor students, according to Tennessee's education Report Cards.

Some of the greatest increases occurred in suburban schools, such as Ooltewah High School and East Brainerd Elementary School.

While the shift in financial status of local families with school-aged children largely has been unseen outside the school system, it's a trend that holds true for districts across the region.

Nearby Cleveland City Schools has had a 59 percent increase, while Polk County has seen its number of economically disadvantaged students rise by nearly 50 percent.

School systems in Georgia are not immune. The number of economically disadvantaged children in Chickamauga City Schools grew by more than 50 percent; 25 percent in Catoosa County Schools; 24 percent in Dade; 20 percent in Walker; and about 15 percent in Whitfield schools, Georgia education records show.

The entire South made news in the last year after a report by the Southern Education Foundation declared it to be the first region in the nation where a majority of students were poor minorities.

What's tricky, said Alan Richard, spokesman for the Southern Regional Education Board, is that the impact of economics on education can be a vicious cycle.

To improve the economic picture, more people need to finish high school and go to college, he said.

"The higher your education level, plain and simple, the more money you make," Richard said. "It has tremendous ramifications for education in the South."

WHO'S ELIGIBLE?

Who's Eligible

FOR FREE MEALS: Children from families with household incomes at or below $27,560.*

*130 percent of the federal poverty level, family of four

FOR REDUCED-PRICE MEALS: Children from families with household incomes up to $39,220.*

*130 percent-185 percent of the federal poverty level, family of four


Hamilton County school lunches

* 40,478: Students in district, 2009

* 22,356 or 56 percent: Participating students in free and reduced-price program

* 18,727: Participating students in free and reduced-price program in 2005

Percent rise in Hamilton County students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, 2005-09:

* 50+ percent: Nine schools

* 40-49 percent: Three

* 30-39 percent: 12

* 20-29 percent: 17

* 10-19 percent: 11

* 0-10 percent: Five

(Thirteen schools had a decrease in students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, 2005-09.)

Increase By school district

* 22%: Bledsoe * 42%: Bradley * 58%: Cleveland

* 19%: Grundy

* 19%: Hamilton

* 36%: Marion

* 48%: Polk

* 24%: Sequatchie

Some of the schools having the biggest increases of economically disadvantaged students in the last five years:

* Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences: 98 to 262 students (167 percent increase)

* Ooltewah High: 266 to 541 students (103 percent)

* Rivermont Elementary: 231 to 384 students (66 percent)

* Soddy-Daisy High: 246 to 393 students (60 percent)

* East Brainerd Elementary: 261 to 409 students (57 percent)

Source: Tennessee Report Card

It's easy to blame an increase in economically disadvantaged children on a bum economy. Plenty of parents have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, leading more people than ever to apply for and receive federal aid.

"More people are applying for free and reduced lunch because they need help," said Lucile Phillips, Hamilton County's director of federal programs.

And certainly the economy is a factor, said Danielle Clark, spokeswoman for the Hamilton County Department of Education. But it's not the only one.

Since 2005, the district's percentage of Hispanic students nearly has doubled - from 2.8 percent to more than 5 percent. Typically, Clark said, those students come from poorer families.

There also was a push last year by the school system to encourage as many people as possible to apply for free and reduced-price lunches, so the district would receive all the federal money it could get.

The school district has "de-stigmatized" applying for federal assistance, Clark said.

"It's very confidential; nobody knows about it. It's not something that's talked about in the classroom."

Students from a family of four with a gross income of $40,793 or less are eligible for reduced-price lunches, as are students from a two-person family with an income below $26,955. Some people are surprised by the guidelines, Phillips said.

"I think a lot of people don't realize what the criteria are for receiving free and reduced lunches. If you were a new teacher with a family of four, you'd qualify for a reduced lunch," she said.

More than 30 Hamilton County public schools have had their population of economically disadvantaged students increase by more than 25 percent from 2005 to 2009, records show. But the issue for some schools is that, while they may receive federal money to help feed those students, the increase may not be enough to earn them Title I money from the federal government.

To become a Title I school and get an extra chunk of cash from the government to pay for extra books, technology and teachers, at least 50 percent of an elementary school's enrollment must receive free or reduced-price lunches. The threshold for high schools is 55 percent.

Hamilton County now has 46 Title I schools.

Because students from poor families often are not exposed to the same resources at home as those who are wealthier, they usually start school academically behind, and education researchers say it costs more money to get them caught up.

"We have to level the playing field. If you have children coming to you not where they need to be, it takes more time to help them be successful," said William Fain, elementary principal at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.

CHASING TITLE I MONEY

In five years, CSAS has had a 167 percent increase in the percentage of its students who receive free or reduced-price lunches. But although the K-12 magnet school has added about 165 economically disadvantaged students, at 26 percent it still is far from being designated as a Title I school.

"It makes it extremely difficult," Fain said. "We have to prioritize what we can."

Fain, who came to CSAS from the recently closed McBrien Elementary, a Title I school, said he was trying to find $329 to buy 25 headsets for one of the school's computer labs.

"At the Title I school, I'd have extra money to pull from. Here, you're pulling from other areas. I'm hunting," he said.

Years ago when McBrien was just on the verge of becoming eligible for Title I status, he encouraged parents to apply for free and reduced-price lunches to get the school over the hump, he said.

Schools such as CSAS are in a tough spot, he said, because some of their low-income parents can't afford to pay the optional school fees, but the school also doesn't qualify for extra Title I funds.

So while the trend at CSAS and in Hamilton County, Tennessee and the rest of the South shows no signs of reversing, Richard said continuing to allow students to get poorer just is not an option. And history gives reason for hope, he said.

"We've overcome tremendous hurdles in the South in terms of race and class. Our education attainment levels are nearly what they are nationally, and that's something that couldn't have been said a generation ago," he said. "We're much better off than we've ever been. To keep things moving in the right direction, we'll have to educate more low-income and minority students than we ever have before."

Online: Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli.

Click here to vote in our daily poll: Do too many students get free or reduced-price meals?

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