Three Missoula elementary schools have lost their Title I designation this year, which would be somewhat good news in healthy economic times.

But these most definitely are not healthy economic times.

Losing Title I funds does not mean there are fewer children in poverty in Missoula. In fact, there are more.

So the ever-expanding population of Missoula children on the free-and-reduced lunch program, which is the yardstick for determining Title I designation, has forced the Missoula County Public Schools district to steer its $3 million Title I budget to schools most in need.

Paxson, Lewis and Clark, and Chief Charlo have all seen their Title I dollars migrate - along with Title I teachers, paraeducators and family resource center specialists. That has left those schools scrambling to meet the needs of impoverished students or those requiring extra instruction.

"All in all it's challenging, but we're working through it as best we can," said Paxson Elementary Principal Kelly Chumrau.

The problem is scarcity. With a fixed pool of money, and a growing number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches, the Title I dollars have had to be diverted to schools that most need the help - Lowell, Russell, Hawthorne and Franklin in particular, where up to 82 percent of students receive free or discounted lunches, and which serve a disturbingly high population of homeless students.

"Poverty throughout the community has increased," said Heather Davis Schmidt, one of MCPS' three regional administrators. "But the pot of money we received through the federal government has not increased. That's really the bottom line."

So even though Lewis and Clark, for example, meets the Title I standard with nearly half its students on free-and-reduced lunches, the program is gone this year.

"We lost some staff, specifically one teacher and three paraeducators and our family resource center position," said principal Jack Sturgis. "It's a very significant drop in personnel. These were exceptional people who did an exceptional job with kids."

The story is the same at Chief Charlo, which had been a Title I school for the last two years.

Principal David Rott said the school lost its family resource center, as well as a full-time Title I teacher and a half-time paraeducator.

"At any given time, there were between 70 and 100 kids using direct services and supplemental support services," he said."

***

Title I is one component of a broader education law signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 to close gaps in education quality for low-income, minority, special-needs and migrant students.

Among federal programs, its budget is fairly small - roughly $25 billion a year.

But the recession of 2008, and its anemic recovery, continue to take a toll on families.

As the number of MCPS students on free-and-reduced lunches and living in poverty increased, the district changed its rules for which schools would receive Title I funds.

The old standard - 35 percent of students on free-and-reduced - was ditched for a system that prioritizes the most heavily hit schools, said Julie Hainline, co-coordinator of MCPS Title I program.

"We used to have an arbitrary line at 35 percent," she said. "But almost everybody is over 35 percent now. So when you have Lowell at over 80 percent, and Franklin at almost 80 percent ... it's way different than 35 percent. It's not even a comparison. If 80 percent of your class is on free-and-reduced, the poverty is huge and the needs are huge."

***

Adding to the pain was the quick departure of teachers and paraeducators funded by stimulus money from the two-year American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Chief Charlo, Lewis and Clark, and Paxson have had to deal with that in addition to the disappearance of their Title I programs.

Creativity has been the key ingredient.

At Lewis and Clark, Sturgis' teachers and staff have shifted some duties, and reserved a half hour at the end of every school day to work with children who used to be served by Title I.

In addition, the school PTA has funded a part-time specialist to keep the doors to its family resource center open.

"We're doing as many creative and innovative things as we can to not let these kids lose any educational traction," said Sturgis, who calls his teachers "amazing," "incredible" and "diligent."

Up on the South Hills, Rott's teachers have identified the students most in need of reading and math help, and broken them into smaller units for instruction using the Response to Intervention model.

They've broken up their schedules to accomplish such instruction, while Rott himself has addressed the congregation at the nearby Missoula Alliance Church to get parishioners to "adopt" families in need to help make up for the loss of the family resource center.

"I can't tell you how well the teachers have grouped together as teams to meet the needs of kids, and modify and adjust what they're doing to make sure those needs are met," he said.

Hainline said McKinney-Vento funds - those targeted at homeless students - have helped, while more schools are relying on University of Montana education and social-work interns.

That may become more commonplace as Title I funds are constantly on the short list for budget cuts.

"It's good just to have those trained bodies in the buildings," Hainline said. "We're blurring the lines to serve the kids as best we can."

None of the school principals who lost Title I designation blame the district for its decision to target the neediest schools.

Just the opposite, in fact.

"While it's tough for us," said Rott, "it is also tough in the broader picture."

At Paxson, where nearly half the students are on free-and-reduced lunches, Chumrau said MCPS made the right decision, given the increasing poverty across the entire district.

"We understand the focus is on the high-poverty schools, and I for one really support that," she said.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

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