In the past 5 years, the rate of low-income students in Illinois public schools has increased to 50 percent, up 7 percentage points. In the Sauk Valley, most schools and school districts have seen a greater increase.
The Rock Falls High School district, in 2009, had 43 percent of its enrollment considered low-income. In 2013, that percentage rose to 56 percent. For Rock Falls Elementary school district, the percent increased to 77 percent, up 10 percentage points from 2009 to 2013.
During those same years, the percentage of low-income students in the Sterling school district rose to 58 percent, from 45, with the lowest level of low-income students being at the high school level.
In Dixon, the rate of low-income students increased from 39 percent in 2009 to 49 percent in 2013, staying below the state average, but increasing at a quicker rate.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, students are considered low-income if they meet at least one of four criteria: from a family that receives Public Aid; eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches; living in institutions for neglected or delinquent children; or being supported in foster homes with public funds.
The vast majority of the students in the four school districts considered low-income qualify under one of the first two reasons, the superintendents said, and the criteria for both of those are similar.
Dixon School District Superintendent Michael Juenger said students from low-income families don’t always get the same support at home, as parents have stresses that higher-income families might not have.
“Without question, those students are at a disadvantage,” he said. “But because they come from a low-income [family] doesn’t mean they can’t succeed.”
Some students from low-income families do quite well, Juenger said.
Dan Arickx is superintendent of the Rock Falls Elementary district, which has the highest rate of low-income students among the four districts. Getting as much homework done as possible during school hours can help students stay on track, he said.
“You’re working with families the best you can, that have major concerns beyond just getting homework done,” Arickx said.
And it’s the low-income students in Arickx’s district, as well as the lower grade levels in the Sterling and Dixon districts, who can face bigger obstacles compared to high school students from low-income families.
Ron McCord, superintendent of Rock Falls High School, said early intervention, even at the high school level, is a valuable tool to keep all students on pace to graduate and be prepared for the next grade level, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
“If you come in behind your peers, it’s harder to catch up,” he said. “The early intervention is most critical. That’s why we, at the high school, concentrate a lot of our effort on the ninth grade.”
However, the school districts don’t target students for help just because they are considered low-income by the state. If a student is struggling, the schools and teachers look at reasons for that, the superintendents said, and factors relating to family income might not be among them.
If household incomes don’t rise as inflation and the cost of living increases, Arickx said, more families can find themselves being considered low-income by the state board of education.
The increase in low-income students throughout the state and in the Sauk Valley probably reflects state and local economies, said Terri Lawrence, president and CEO of Tri-County Opportunities Council, which watches poverty in the area and works to prevent or reduce its effects.
In October, the jobless rate in Illinois was 8.3 percent. In Whiteside County the rate was 8.8 percent, and it was 8.3 percent in Lee County. Those numbers reflect what Lawrence has seen – that not only have many families lost a job, but many others are underemployed.
“More families are in crisis,” she said.
Low-income students: A look at the percentages
Listed by year from 2009 to 2013:
Dixon: 39, 41, 46, 45, 49
Sterling: 45, 50, 54, 52, 58
Rock Falls High School: 43, 45, 46, 50, 56
Rock Falls Elementary: 67, 73, 75, 75, 77
Illinois: 43, 45, 48, 49, 50
Go to www.IllinoisReportCard.com for more information about the reports or to look at detailed reports for each school.