Mapleton Public Schools—a suburban district just north of Denver, Colorado—serves more than 7,600 students from Pre-K through grade 12 in its 15 schools. Though its enrollment numbers have remained steady in recent years, this district has been grappling with significant changes. In the span of a decade, the number of Mapleton students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch doubled. By the 2010-11 school year, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the student body was eligible for subsidized meals. As the number of low-income students has climbed, so too has the need for extra assistance that will help kids be ready to learn—from clothing and food to additional academic support.
Mapleton Public Schools isn’t alone. Suburban districts across the nation’s 100 largest metro areas have become home to growing low-income populations in recent years. In the last half of the 2000s, the number of suburban students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches grew by 22 percent, compared to an increase of just 8 percent in city districts during that time. At the same time, many school districts are also seeing more students experiencing homelessness.
These trends reflect larger shifts in the geography of poverty within the nation’s largest metro areas. Between 2000 and 2012, the population living below the federal poverty line in the suburbs (roughly $23,500 for a family of four in 2012) grew by 65 percent—more than twice the pace of growth in large cities and faster than the increases registered in smaller metro areas and rural communities—making America’s suburbs home to the largest and fastest growing poor population in the country. By 2012, one in three of the nation’s poor lived in suburbs, and the suburban poor population outstripped the urban poor by 3 million.
Many different factors have driven the rapid rise in suburban poverty since 2000, including changes in the location of affordable housing, the continued outward shift of employment, the impact of two economic recessions, and the growing prevalence of low-wage jobs, the bulk of which are located in the suburbs. Together, all of these dynamics have helped shape the growth in suburban poverty that has touched almost every major metro area in the country.
However, many suburbs lack the kinds of resources and infrastructure that cities have built up over decades to address poverty. The suburban safety net is often patchy and stretched thin, and limited (or no) public transit can make it difficult for poor residents to find affordable transportation to reach services or job opportunities that lie elsewhere in the region. As rising poverty strains limited resources in these communities, suburban schools like Mapleton often find themselves on the frontlines, not only in identifying growing need, but also in responding by trying to fill capacity and resource gaps.
Mapleton Public Schools falls largely in an unincorporated part of Adams County, meaning there is no local government structure like a city council to help provide support, nor are there resources like a recreation district, library, or a human services office, leaving it largely to the school district to address the needs of its low-income students and their families. Moreover, the public funding the district receives hasn’t kept up with the rapid rise in need it has experienced in recent years, and although Mapleton has stepped up its efforts to attract grants and philanthropic funding to supplement these dollars, even hiring a full-time grant writer, the district still struggles as philanthropic funding has disproportionately gone to the city.
Yet even in this challenging funding environment, Mapleton is one of many suburban districts finding ways to bring much needed resources to help its growing low-income population of students succeed. By partnering with local, state, and national organizations and soliciting donations for things like mental health services, school supplies, and feeding programs, Mapleton has managed to craft a robust continuum of wraparound support services, including school-based therapies, a summer feeding program, a food bank, a clothing bank, and a dropout recovery high school. With this integrated, multifaceted approach to addressing the needs of its low-income and at-risk students, Mapleton’s staff has already seen improvements in the academic performance and outcomes of its students.
In researching our book Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, Alan Berube and I found suburban schools in regions across the country, from the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio to the South King County districts that make up the Road Map Project in metro Seattle, that, like Mapleton, were taking the lead on filling gaps in capacity through more scaled, collaborative, and integrated strategies to address the complex needs of their low-income students. While this type of approach often extends well-beyond a school district’s educational mandate to respond to basic needs, as Mapleton superintendent Charlotte Ciancio asked when we spoke last October, “If not us, then who?”
While there is clearly a need for more (and more sustainable) resources to help suburban districts respond to these growing challenges, these models underscore that collaboration and partnership can go a long way in helping communities like Mapleton stretch limited resources to improve outcomes for low-income students. For suburban schools grappling with similar challenges, there are many ways for parents, educators, and community members to get involved—from collecting and sharing information to help educate stakeholders on how needs are changing, to collaborating with other districts experiencing similar challenges, to partnering with government officials, nonprofit organizations, and others to more effectively respond to rising need. To learn more, or to share how your community is addressing suburban poverty, visit www.confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org.
Elizabeth Kneebone is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. Her work primarily focuses on urban and suburban poverty, metropolitan demographics, and tax policies that support low-income workers and communities.
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