As Tax Bases Erode, Rural Schools Struggle to Meet Students’ Basic Needs

Jul 18, 2017

Maine schools have long said they need more money. One reason, educators say, is that they are taking on responsibilities they’ve never had before: providing extra food, medical services and even washers and dryers to clean students’ clothes. Schools in rural Maine need the most help, but often lack the tax base to pay for it.

For Rumford Elementary School teacher Sarah Lambert, the day may start in the classroom. But it often ends in a room not much bigger than a closet — a food pantry, open once a month for any community member to use. First opened four years ago, Lambert says it has become an important resource in a town with a declining population, and in which nearly 85 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

“It’s definitely sort of taken on more in the past couple of years because of how many families utilize it,” she says. “The other month when we had 20, that was when we found out the other food pantry just shut down. Now having one of those taken away is — it’s difficult,” she says.

Just across the hall from the food pantry are a washer and dryer, the result of a years-long effort by Rumford’s principal and school nurse to raise the money to purchase the set. Lambert says the school began seeing students showing up to class with stains, many wearing clothes from the day before.

The school now provides some clothes for students and washes anything dirty for them. Lambert says it’s a way to help kids feel more comfortable at school and gently help some families in need.

“We have a clothing storage area where if we have students who have clothes are dirty, they can wear something new for that day,” she says. “So they feel confident and comfortable with themselves, because until we meet those basic needs, they’re really not ready for learning.”

“A lot of schools are thinking about this from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” says Catherine Biddle, who studies rural education at the University of Maine at Orono, referring to the motivational theory of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who created a hierarchy of basic human needs. “Kids can’t be hungry or they won’t be able to learn. When the community is meeting fewer of those needs, the school has to do more.”

However, Biddle says finding money to support these efforts is often most difficult in communities that are losing jobs and people. And when a community loses tax revenue and students, Biddle says the schools often have less money to help.

“I think that’s the fundamental paradox in Maine. When you have economic decline, you have a tax base that’s eroded, which increases in poverty, in need for all families and residents. Not just for young people. And the ability to then take on the burden of school funding, and the increased need for schools to get funding, becomes really challenging. Even while the population has greater and greater needs that need to be met,” she says.

Rumford has found money from the federal government, and also a grant from the Hannaford supermarket chain. Other organizations have also led similar community initiatives, such as Washington County’s Community Caring Collaborative.

At the state level, the Legislature two years ago approved the creation of pilot projects for so-called “community schools,” which serve as a hub to identify the needs of families and work with organizations to provide assistance with heat, housing, adult education and medical care.

Experts say thousands of these kinds of schools are slowly growing in places like Oakland, California, and Boston. But in Maine, there have been few formal initiatives to create these kinds of schools.

“For us, it was the perfect next step. How do we call a school a community resource and formally find ways to make those links and connections, not only with what the school can do but what else is happening in the community that supports kids and learning?” says Rick Colpitts, superintendent of the Oxford Hills School District, which received two of the state’s three grants.

Colpitts says the district is using the money at two of its elementary schools to hire “family support advocates” who will visit the homes of dozens of kindergarteners over the next few months.

“Finding out what the needs in the home are and then scanning out across the community to find out who can meet those needs,” he says. “Now you have all the organizations within the community working together to provide that service, rather than the school trying to do its piecemeal piece.”

A similar strategy is used by the district’s Head Start preschool program, with some reported success. District officials say that this past fall, less than half of their preschoolers met standards for language, cognition and emotional development. By this spring, more than 90 percent met the standards.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This story was originally published July 17, 2017 at 4:22 p.m.