- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

Seven-year-old Molly Deckers has a new habit, and her parents couldn’t be prouder.

She reads to them, something her mother attributes to the extra help Molly gets at Beall Elementary School in Frostburg, Md.

“Before the school year, she didn’t want to read,” Laurie Deckers said. “Now, every night, she’ll sit down and she’ll read to us and she’s excited about it.”

Money for the Read to Succeed program comes from Title I, the largest federally funded educational program. State education departments receive and disburse the dollars based on the Census Bureau’s annual estimates of poor children in each school district.

The 2000 census indicates poverty has declined among school-age children in Allegany County, where the Deckers live, raising the prospect of Title I program cuts next school year. Robert McKenzie, who supervises Title I programs in Allegany public schools, finds that dismaying in a county where the September unemployment rate was 5.3 percent, compared with 4.1 percent statewide.

“The county is absolutely not getting richer. We’re a very economically distressed county,” he said. “We’ve lost all of our blue-collar industry for the most part, and we have not had any influx of technology-based industry to take the place of the jobs.”

Nevertheless, the Census Bureau estimates the share of Allegany children ages 5 to 17 living in poverty declined to 14.7 percent in 2000 from 22.5 percent in 1995. Allegany dropped from third poorest to sixth poorest among Maryland’s 24 school districts. That was the sharpest decline in the state for that period. In 1999, Allegany was fifth poorest, with an estimated 16.3 percent of schoolchildren in poverty.

The 2000 numbers will determine how more than $13 billion in Title I dollars are distributed next school year among the nation’s 14,000 districts. Maryland is getting an estimated $158.6 million this year.

Despite Allegany’s improvement, it and its western Maryland neighbors, Garrett and Washington counties, still comprised one of the state’s three blocs of persistent poverty in 2000. The others were Baltimore city, which topped the list with an estimated 22.2 percent of school-age children in poverty, and the four counties of the lower Eastern Shore, where estimated student poverty rates ranged from 14.2 percent in Worcester to 21.8 percent in Somerset.

“We have a real strong need for federal funding. If you look at the numbers, we are dependent on federal funding for as much as we can get,” said Karen-Lee Brofee, superintendent of Somerset County public schools.

Title I funds pay for a variety of reading and math help, including books and other instructional material for students, and salaries for teachers and aides. Schools run Title I programs in the summer as well as during the school year.

Molly Deckers gets 30 minutes of individual reading help every day, her mother said. “That’s just incredible for her to have that one-one-one time with someone,” Mrs. Deckers said.

Allegany County’s Title I allotment for this school year is $3.1 million, which pays 33 teachers, 23 aides and six “parent involvement coordinators,” who work with parents on their children’s educational plans, Mr. McKenzie said. The amount is $21,000 less than last year, which meant one fewer teacher and one fewer aide, he said.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act could further strain Mr. McKenzie’s budget with its requirement that 20 percent of Title I funds be held in reserve to pay potential transportation and private tutoring costs for students whose schools don’t meet annual improvement benchmarks. The district has avoided those costs so far, but if it hadn’t, “the other Title I schools would have lost some kind of service,” Mr. McKenzie said. “The pot is only so full, so to speak.”

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