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More area students living in poverty
More than 41 percent of students in the Monroe school district qualify for free or reduced lunch, an indication they are living in poverty. And while those known cases represent an increase of almost 20 percent in the last 10 years, Director of Pupil Services Joe Monroe warns the actual number of students living in poverty may actually be higher than what's being reported. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - More than 40 percent of all students enrolled in the Monroe school district last school year were below the poverty line, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

For the 2014-2015 school year, 41.5 percent of Monroe students were below the poverty line, an increase of almost 20 percent since the 2005-2006 school year.

The Monroe school district isn't alone, either. Each school district in Green and Lafayette counties has seen a steady increase in the number of financially disadvantaged students enrolled per year since 2005.

Of these districts, New Glarus appears the most fortunate, with only 23.4 percent of its students below the poverty line last year. Meanwhile, the Shullsburg school district climbed to 51.6 percent during the 2013-2014 year before settling to a still-alarming 49.6 percent last year.

Joe Monroe, director of pupil services for the Monroe school district, said the poverty rate for the district's individual schools ranges from 33 percent at Northside Elementary to 61 percent at Parkside Elementary.

Monroe added that the data likely underestimates the real numbers.

"Our poverty data is based on people who sign up for reduced lunches," Monroe said. "But people are less likely to sign up for reduced lunches as their kids get older."

Even worse, Monroe said, as many as 5 percent of students last year were believed to be homeless, a number that is almost certainly an underestimate.

"People picture homelessness as people living in boxes," Monroe said. "But it's more like families doubling up on housing, or staying with friends or family members.

"We have a lot of transient families," Monroe said.

Meanwhile, some families refuse to sign up for reduced lunches because of pride or because they don't believe they need them, while impoverished students don't always confide their situation to authority figures, Monroe said.

Monroe said poverty acutely affects students both academically and with their personal relationships.

"It's easy to understand that if your basic needs aren't being met, it's difficult to engage academically," Monroe said.

While school districts cannot lift students and their families out of poverty, they can help alleviate the burden it places upon them.

"I think the biggest thing we can do is to work on developing relationships between the kids and the adult faculty," Monroe said. "A lot of kids in poverty lack meaningful relationships with adults."

Monroe added that district faculty do a lot of "behind the scenes work" to provide individual attention to disadvantaged students.

"Just last Tuesday we learned of a student living in a vehicle at night," Monroe said late last week. "And a group of faculty members got together to work on getting this kid the help he needed."

Even so, the effort to keep students well cared-for is a constant battle, Monroe said. While the community has been supportive about providing counselors and psychiatric care for students, the difficulty often comes down to the bottom line.

"To fix these sorts of problems, we have to allocate resources," Monroe said. "And that can be difficult when we're on a budget."