In another sign of the struggling economy, more than 25 percent of students in the Dawson County school system have prequalified for free and reduced lunch during the 2010-11 school year.
At the beginning of every school year, Georgia provides a list of students whose families receive financial assistance from the government, so that they automatically prequalify for lunch at a reduced cost.
This year, the list had more than 900 students, which was triple the initial numbers for the 2009-10 school year.
Even more students could qualify for discounted meals after filling out the forms administrators distribute at the beginning of the year.
All 3,400 students in the Dawson County school system have the opportunity to qualify, according to Keith Porter, superintendent.
The numbers rose drastically after students returned the paperwork during the 2009-10 school year, Porter said.
At the end of last school year, more than 44 percent of the entire student population was eating lunch free or at less than full price.
Porter said by the end of the current school year, more than half the district’s students could be eligible for the financial assistance.
More than 50 percent of students at Robinson Elementary and Dawson County Middle schools qualified during 2009-10, according to Porter.
In his 12 years as a systemwide administrator, he has never seen more difficult times for students.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a drastic swing in the number of students in need of financial support,” he said.
Linda Byrd, director of school nutrition, said Dawson County students are not alone.
“Everybody’s in the same boat right now,” Byrd said. “It’s a very hard time for families with children.”
Porter said the system’s aim is to “keep the focus for these kids on academic goals ... but sometimes that’s difficult when a child comes to school hungry or their family has just been evicted from their home.”
Added Porter: “Those type situations are becoming more prevalent.”