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Pioneer Graphic by Mollie Burlingame

Moving in the wrong direction: County's percentage of children in high-poverty neighborhoods highest in state

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Local advocates for children were unsurprised by a recent study that named Beltrami County as having the highest number of children living in high-poverty neighborhoods in Minnesota.

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"It's not a new trend, but it's more severe," said Becky Schueller, the executive director of Evergreen Youth & Family Services.

Beltrami County has 3,160 children (28 percent) living in high-poverty neighborhoods, according to Kids Count data released late last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Blue Earth County had the second-highest percentage with 21 percent (2,493 total) children living in high-poverty neighborhoods. Ramsey County was third with 20 percent (24,078).

Schueller said overall, poverty is on the rise throughout the country, a trend she has seen firsthand as Evergreen this past year served 352 children residentially, an "unprecedented" number for the organization.

"A lot of which was due to poverty," she said.

Angie Lauderbaugh, a Bemidji School District employee who works to keep students' school life stable while their home life is in transition, last year worked with 288 students in the district and this year has already served more than 200.

"There are a lot of barriers to their education," she said of the children who are homeless or in transition.

The program provides students with everything they need to attend school, such as supplies, gym shoes and snow pants for outside recess.

A key component, though, is providing transportation. Lauderbaugh said studies have shown that every time a student moves, it sets him or her back four to six months.

Lauderbaugh said she knows of students that could have transferred between five different elementary schools within one year without the help of her program.

"We try to make sure that school is the one stable place for students," she said. "If we can keep them in their school of origin, they're more likely to succeed."

There are exceptions, such as when a family moves to a location very near to a school or when a potentially long bus ride would adversely affect the child.

"We look at what is in the best interest of the child always," she said.

Lauderbaugh's program is one of several in the Bemidji School District aimed at helping at-risk students succeed.

"We have kids in need," said Superintendent Jim Hess. "Unfortunately, no one is stepping up to take care of these kids. District 31 really feels it is incumbent on us to do as much as we can."

There are several programs aimed especially at early learners, such as preschool for at-risk 4-year-olds and expanded class offerings through early childhood family education.

Another program is K-1, open to at-risk students that are eligible for kindergarten but not yet ready for full-day, every-day kindergarten.

K-1 is a transitional program that meets for a full day every other day. There are two sections of the program with 20 students each.

"We're doing it because it's the right thing to do," said Hess, noting the program cultivates success. "If we didn't have this program, many of (the students) would probably enter kindergarten and not succeed."

Since students will enter full-day kindergarten next year, the state will not fund the program, which employs a full-time teacher and paraprofessional.

"We are doing it on our own," Hess said.

It was a point he brought up Wednesday in a meeting with Department of Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius during Bemidji Day at the Capitol.

On Friday, Hess said 52 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunch - higher than the state average of 20 percent - but administrators are committed to improving programs and hiring teachers that will help students succeed.

"We're sitting in the middle of four of the most impoverished counties in the state," he said, "but that's no reason for us not to shine."

'Concerning trends'

Beltrami County has traditionally had among the highest numbers of children in poverty in the state, said Schueller, the Evergreen executive director.

But there are contributing factors perpetuating the cycle, she said, noting Beltrami County has a teen pregnancy rate 2½ times greater than the state level.

"That's significant," she said. "Ours are on the rise while in the state and nationally, they're going down."

Beltrami County also has high out-of-home placement numbers, which is due to abuse and neglect, Schueller said.

"That is definitely something that goes hand in hand with poverty," she said.

The county also has a very high rate of children arrested for serious and violent crimes, she said. The drop-out rate from school is more than twice the state level.

"There are a lot of very concerning trends," she said.

Attacking the problem, she said, is difficult. Funding has been cut to area programs, including Evergreen itself.

Last year was the first year in 32 years that Evergreen's youth shelter did not receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Family and Youth Bureau.

"I feel, as a society, we are moving in the wrong direction if we really want to address child poverty," Schueller said.

Schueller said legislators are not working to improve the situation, and she points to recent legislative actions such as the so-called Welfare Reform 2.0 bill, which includes a proposal to reduce the amount of benefits given.

"Child poverty is part of family poverty and when you dismantle the safety net ... you are increasing the number of children in poverty," she said. "Things like that are moving us in the wrong direction."

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