Whether this sudden shift is a long-term trend or a short-term deviation is unclear at this point.
Ken Zeff, executive director of Learn4Life, an organization that helps metro systems boost achievement, said it could be the result of the temporary increase in the federal child tax credit. Stephen Owens, an expert on education funding, said it could be a “data integrity” issue related to census work during the pandemic.
But Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, wondered if it might also be a sign that poverty, once chiefly an urban issue, is beginning to spread to the suburbs: “Is it gentrification? Is it housing prices in Atlanta growing faster than in metro Atlanta?”
The shift could also influence how federal assistance is divvied between schools. Most of the cost of public education is borne by state and local taxpayers, but the federal government offers some help, especially in areas with high poverty.
It could take a while for any big funding shifts though: Atlanta officials say 70 of their schools still qualify for the federal poverty program known as Title I. (The district has about 90 schools, counting those operating under charters.)
Still, people in the suburbs have noticed a change.
“We have an increasing number of people who are experiencing houselessness,” said Marlyn Tillman, co-founder and executive director of Gwinnett SToPP, an advocacy organization. “Our hotels are filling up with people living there.”
Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said most of the suburban educators she knows have had students who lived in extended-stay hotels. Such transience affects learning, she said.
Vocabulary can suffer when books are not a priority, and they typically aren’t for families on the move, she said. “When you’re carrying your clothes around in a garbage bag ... you’re carrying the essentials.”
In Gwinnett County, home of the state’s largest school district, former school board member Everton Blair recalls signs of growing poverty over the years. Before he graduated from Shiloh High School over a decade ago, there were kids on the school bus who were constantly changing addresses and students who’d missed kindergarten.
Blair, the district’s first Black board member who recently left office after one term, said averages on academic measures such as test scores can mask pockets of low performance.
“You kind of have a tale of two schools within a school,” he said, “and maybe even in the aggregate, a tale of two or three districts within one district.”
Tillman thinks the system should budget for smaller class sizes in high-poverty areas, so teachers have more time to find and fill learning gaps where struggling parents cannot. “They’re dealing with life and may not have that opportunity to provide some extra learning support at home,” she said, “so we have to be the extra support.”
Gwinnett school officials say they have noticed an increase in their youth poverty rate since the start of the pandemic.
The system said officials are planning “to ensure that students throughout the district, particularly students of poverty, have access to school and community resources as we seek to remove any barriers to students’ success.”
Metro Atlanta child poverty rates
Here are the youth poverty rates and the number of youths in families in poverty for some metro Atlanta school districts in 2021.
District Rate Number
Clayton 26.9% 16,187
Atlanta 26.6% 16,112
DeKalb 23.7% 26,648
Marietta 16.6% 1,396
Gwinnett 14.9% 28,625
Fulton 14.6% 16,063
Buford 13.5% 529
Henry 12.2% 5,846
Coweta 11.6% 3,101
Cobb 10.8% 13,190
Source: U.S. Census Bureau