EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a three-part Sunday series on poverty in Angelina County.

The Southern Education Foundation has released a report detailing a new majority — low-income students.

The study found that low-income children are a majority of students in the public school system, especially in the South.

■ Around 6.8 million children, or about 1 in 11 of all children in the United States, live at 50% below the federal poverty line.

■ Thirty percent of children raised in poverty do not finish high school.

■ People who do not earn a high school diploma by age 20 are seven times more likely to be persistently poor between ages 25 and 30.

■ Children who grow up impoverished complete fewer years of schooling and earn much lower income than people who did not grow up poor.

■ Children who grow up poor in the U.S. are more likely to be in poor health.

“No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low-income students simply a matter of fairness,” the Southern Education Foundation report reads. “Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”

The study said that poverty leads to poor physical health and motor skills, diminishes a child’s ability to concentrate and remember information and reduces attentiveness, curiosity and motivation.

According to data from the Texas Education Agency, 77.8% of Lufkin ISD students in 2017 were economically disadvantaged. The district had a student population of 8,176.

Diboll ISD’s student population in 2017 was 1,903; 66.9% were economically disadvantaged.

The other county school districts ranged from 50-60% economically disadvantaged.

Dr. Cristina Graves with The Children’s Clinic in Lufkin is a medical doctor certified in pediatrics. Graves has served at the clinic for 13 years, and she said one of the biggest issues facing children living in poverty is a lack of access to food.

“The schools have done a great job at addressing that because they have the free breakfast and lunch program, but at the end of the school day, I know that some of these kids get anxious going home because they know there’s nothing for dinner, or the weekends or holidays” Graves said.

Lufkin ISD and Diboll ISD recently have voted to take advantage of a free breakfast and lunch program for all students.

Deidra Harrison, executive director of student services, said Lufkin ISD had a poverty rate of 76.92% for the 2018-19 year. However, this is just the percentage of students who are on free or reduced lunch, and the real statistic could be higher, she said.

“This has always been a big concern for the district,” Harrison said. “One thing the district will do is provide free breakfast and lunch for all students next year regardless of their family income status. This will enable us to make sure each student has at least two meals a day during the school year. We also utilize backpack buddies, which is a program that provides a backpack full of food that goes home on Friday with the students during the school year.”

Because many of Diboll ISD’s students are food insufficient, it has joined Lufkin ISD in offering free breakfast and lunch for all students, Superintendent Vicki Thomas said.

In previous years, only certain students were awarded free and reduced lunch, and then they had a limited choice as to what they could eat. Some lunches that could only be purchased were presented in baskets that looked different than the typical plate lunches.

“A lot of perception goes along with poverty,” Thomas said. “Our food service director has worked really hard in making sure there is really no difference in the kinds of things that all kids can get, so the stigma is taken away from that.”

When a person goes too long without eating, their glucose levels drop. When glucose levels drop, it’s hard to concentrate because the brain cannot function properly, Graves said.

“What should be a simple thought process no longer is, and you’re having troubles calculating, doing basic math, things that you could have done,” she said.

Providing breakfast to students is a big help with low glucose levels, Graves said.

Glucose levels are the immediate effect. Longterm effects include hampered brain development. Graves said if children do not eat enough fat, their brain will not develop properly, and they will be set behind the curve.

Laura L. Squiers, senior program officer with the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, said there are many food deserts in Texas. A food desert is a place where people may have access to food, but they don’t have access to healthy food.

“You might have a Dollar General where you could get potato chips and Spam, but you can’t get any fresh fruits or vegetables,” Squiers said.

Kids can become anemic if they do not eat enough foods with iron. Iron rich foods include green, leafy vegetables and red meats.

“Kids who are eating off of a very low budget aren’t going to get the iron they need and are going to become anemic; that’s going to also cause troubles with learning,” Graves said.

The Children’s Clinic screens for anemia to help rectify potential problems, and the T.L.L. Temple Foundation provides funding for food pantries and food banks that serve the 23 counties in their region.

“A challenge that we didn’t expect to find is transportation,” Squiers said. “Transportation is a huge challenge for under-resourced people who may not have a car or an unreliable car. That is a challenge not just to get to food but to get to medical care or other human service safety nets, as well.”

DISD buses kids from any distance, whether it be across the street or miles away, because transportation can be such a burden, Thomas said. The state only requires schools to bus two miles or more from the district.

“It’s expensive for the district, but we get all kids that want to get on the bus,” Thomas said. “So no excuses about coming to school, no excuses about not having supplies. We’re ready to learn.”

DISD also offers free breakfast and lunch during the summer for anyone under 18 at the H.G. Temple Elementary/Intermediate School and provides transportation from the Boys & Girls Club, the Housing Authority and the Family Literacy Center.

“We did have an idea to ask for a grant to do a food truck in the summer to go around the community and offer food, but we didn’t get the funding for it (from the state),” Thomas said.

As the schools can help with students from pre-K to 12th grade, Graves said ages 1-4 are in danger, especially because of the tremendous brain development during that time.

“WIC has done a good job of addressing the infancy period with formulas,” she said. “In times past, before WIC, you had tons of kids who were just on milk and their brains wouldn’t have developed correctly. Now, because of WIC, they’re getting free formula.”

“If you are hungry or you’re in fear, then you can’t learn,” Thomas said. “So what we try to do is make sure we feed them and that we have a safe, strong, nurturing environment for them to enter into every day.”

DISD and other districts across East Texas have been sending home backpacks of food with many of the students for more than a decade.

“For a lot of our kids, maybe the last good meal they’ll have is Friday at lunch,” Thomas said. “They’re hungry. They’re really hungry.”

While many schools do provide meals during the weekends through the Backpack Buddies program, Squiers said some students are left in the cracks.

“They have older and younger brothers and sisters who maybe aren’t in school, so when they take their little backpack home, they have to share that food with brothers and sisters,” she said.

However, there are some organizations who try to determine how many brothers and sisters there are and pack the backpack accordingly because they saw this discrepancy, she said.

A lack of access to affordable medical care also plays a part in students’ development, Graves said. Many low-income families have access to Medicaid, but “then there is that terrible zone that parents fall into when they’re just above that income level for Medicaid and still can’t afford insurance,” she said.

Many of those families end up on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but Graves said this program has shown to be unreliable — people are on and off of it, and it doesn’t always have the funding. The next best option for families is the Angelina County & Cities Health District, which sees all patients regardless of insurance for little to nothing, Graves said.

“Access to health care is a problem, and what ends up happening is that a lot of these families, when their kids get sick, just use the ER, which is a huge expense,” Graves said. “That’s the only choice they have because the ER is forced to see them. They probably won’t end up paying those bills because most people can’t afford those bills, let alone someone without insurance.”

Harrison said she has also seen a lack of access to affordable medical care in low-income students. To offset that, the district works closely with the ACCHD and The Children’s Clinic.

The Children’s Clinic has provided LISD with iPads for each of their school nurses that connects directly to The Children’s Clinic for free. That has been a huge lifesaver for the district, she said.

“If we see a kid who has some sort of weird rash or something on their head, we can call them and they’ll either answer right away or call us right back,” Harrison said. “We can show them pictures and talk face-to-face with them, and they’ll tell us if that child needs to come in or if we can just put some Benadryl or ice on it and send them home.”

The toll can go beyond physical, however. Graves said kids also are burdened socially and mentally.

“Nowadays, so much of what the students are doing is online,” Graves said. “If they don’t have that availability to electronics, that’s going to create a problem, too. For kids, we all know this. You’re worried about what everybody thinks. If you’re coming to school with holes in your pants or without the proper equipment to be there, you’re worried about other people judging you. So it’s very much a mental toll on all aspects, non-stops.”

In addition, a lack of money often causes stress and strife in a household, and if a person has bad coping skills, that stress could turn into abuse, she said. Beyond access to higher paying jobs, access to mental health services could help alleviate that downward cycle, she said.

“The kids hear it, and they come to school stressed and worried,” Graves said.

Lack of access to mental health services is also an issue for low-income students at LISD, even though Burke has grown and shown support in recent years, Harrison said.

She said she thinks some parents don’t know or can’t access help from places like Burke or the health district, and some parents of kids who may not be here legally are afraid to apply or go to those places, she said.

An increasingly important need that hasn’t yet been filled is the need for counseling services, Thomas said.

“We have counselors on staff, but we need counseling and mental health services that are at an extremely reduced rate,” Thomas said. “And that’s not just for poverty; that casts across all socioeconomic areas.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. The theory proposes five levels of needs in the human experience — physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization.

The most basic level of needs — physiological — must be met before the next levels of need can be achieved, Maslow said.

“If you are hungry or you’re in fear, then you can’t learn,” Thomas said. “So what we try to do is make sure we feed them and that we have a safe, strong, nurturing environment for them to enter into every day.”

One of the biggest relief efforts DISD offers is free school supplies for all students. Katherina Crager, assistant superintendent of finance, said this is the sixth year the district has offered that.

“We typically spend about $30,000 a year on school supplies,” Crager said. “Over the years, the school supply list continued to grow and became more burdensome on families, especially families with multiple students in house. It was an initiative that the board was really excited to get going. It’s been a lifesaver for a lot of people.”

A common consensus among several sources was that it is important to help the whole family. Harrison said affordable housing would be a great step in the right direction for kids to keep them from the stress of displacement.

“We’ve got a lot of kids whose parents are considered homeless because they’re doubled up, two families living together,” she said.

Graves said East Texas is dedicated to serving its children, but there is a discrepancy with support for its adults.

“I think our society has done a good job to help children,” Graves said. “I think we fail the adults.”

Grace Juarez’s email address is grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.