Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of three articles focusing on the impact of poverty on education in rural areas, including Warren County.

When one considers the wealthiest places in the state, the Research Triangle Park region and Charlotte come to mind. There, business and technology drive a growing economy fueled by companies based in countries around the world.

Little more than an hour’s drive away from the RTP region lies Warren County and other rural areas that have not fully recovered from the economic downtown of about 10 years ago and where poverty is more evident. Does this economic difference have an impact on education here and in similar communities? Local educators say “yes.”

Dr. Ray Spain, superintendent of schools, said that while poverty exists in more affluent areas like Wake County, it is a major concern in rural, low wealth school districts like Warren. Poverty not only affects education, but employment, housing and available resources, he added.

Spain said that the counties in the Interstate 85 area and points east share a common characteristic of high poverty, which creates challenges such as access to nutritious meals and after-school care. To address these challenges, Warren County Schools has developed a number of programs, which will be addressed in future articles. 

However, low wealth school districts also face challenges in providing pre-kindergarten services. Spain and Dr. Linda Mason, assistant superintendent for curriculum, consider pre-kindergarten as a vital part of the educational process that sets the foundation for children’s future success. Students who have not attended pre-kindergarten must catch up on what they missed once they enter kindergarten. 

Mason said that students in more affluent schools districts are more likely to be exposed to early educational opportunities because more parents can afford to enroll their children in private pre-kindergartens. In areas such as Warren County, parents may not be able to afford the cost of private daycare and pre-kindergarten.

Spain said that public school systems’ pre-kindergarten programs are funded through federal sources. The state does not include pre-kindergarten students in the student count on which its annual funding allotment is based, he added.

Spain said that Warren County Schools currently is able to offer pre-kindergarten at its elementary schools. However, local educators are closely watching whether the N.C. General Assembly will enact legislation reducing class size.

Spain said that most educators would agree that smaller classes are better for students because they allow more individual attention for students. More individual attention helps students better understand what is being taught, which leads to improved test scores, he added.

However, even what would be ideal for students may lead to problems, especially for low wealth school districts, Spain said. If the state sets a limit on class size and a class has just one student over that limit, the class would be divided into two separate classes.

School systems are left with a list of questions: What do we do if our schools are close to capacity? Where will we house all of our students? Can we afford to construct more classroom space? What happens to pre-kindergarten if we need to add space for other grades? Will we have to set a limit on the number of students we can accept in pre-kindergarten? Do we have the funding to hire more teachers for the additional classes? Can we recruit enough teachers?

Spain said that for low-wealth schools systems, modular classrooms may be the best answer to the space problem. However, they still must be rented or purchased, and cannot be assembled quickly, he noted.

Condition of school buildings also plays a part in considering available space. Spain said that local school buildings have been well maintained over the years, but some facilities for the district’s youngest children were built as early as the 1950s. Local educators worry whether these buildings are still suitable for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students.

The school space dilemma is just one of the challenges that low-wealth school districts face. Spain and Mason said that in areas such as Warren County, school systems must develop resources to give students opportunities they may not have otherwise.

“We are trying to come up with resources to help address concerns related to poverty,” Spain said. “Our mission and job is to do whatever we can to provide opportunities for students to take advantage of.”