Millie Campbell, a teacher at Palmetto Elementary School in Poinciana, and Luis Alvarez, the principal, say they see a lot of students whose parents can't afford to feed them at home. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

POINCIANA – The impact of the recession has been felt in a lot of ways – a high unemployment rate, a housing market that may not have hit bottom, a continuously rising home foreclosure rate, and businesses that have been forced to close their doors.
Since the real estate market crashed in 2008, Poinciana has experienced all of these challenges. But one impact from the recession that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention or coverage has been something else entirely: the impact on children.
And the painful struggle that so many working class families are enduring is reflected in the fact that at a local school like Palmetto Elementary, the percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches is sadly sky high.
“Eighty-five percent of the students qualify,” said Luis Alvarez, principal of the elementary school that opened in 2007 on the Polk County side of Poinciana.
Tony Claudio, who volunteers at the school and is the head of its School Advisory Council, said this comes as no surprise to him, since he often talks to local parents and knows the very difficult time they’re having making ends meet.

Even if both parents are working, he said, they often don’t earn enough to pay for rent, utilities, gas and upkeep on their car – and food.
“I’ve had parents come in here and say ‘I can’t afford to feed my kids,’ “ Claudio said.
The free and reduced meals program, Alvarez and Claudio agreed, is actually a great benefit to the community, because it fills a very strong need.
“The parents can’t afford it. They have to send their kids here to feed them for breakfast and lunch,” Claudio said. “The parents work, but they have to spend so much for gas getting to work and back.”
Alvarez said the high percentage of students who qualify for the meals program actually benefits both the students and the school, since it enables Palmetto Elementary to qualify for a higher level of federal aid.
“We provide breakfast and lunch, and we have a large number of students on free or reduced lunch, and that’s a good thing, because the higher the percentage of students who qualify for that, the more federal dollars you get,” Alvarez said.
Students who qualify for the reduced cost breakfast and lunch program, Alvarez said, pay just 40 cents for their meals.

Located in a working class neighborhood on the Polk County side of Poinciana is Palmetto Elementary School. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Recognizing that many of the families in the neighborhood are having a tough time making ends meet, Alvarez noted that his teachers often volunteer their time to help students who are struggling academically.
“Teachers come in at 7 a.m. to provide free tutoring,” he said. “And we have a lot of teachers who offer entertainment and fun help for the parents.”
Mille Campbell is a teacher at Palmetto Elementary, and she’s offered to purchase items for his students if their parents can’t afford to buy basic school supplies.
“I know I spend a lot of money giving food and things to the kids – erasers and pencils and things like that,” she said. “I want them to be able to have these things.”
Claudio said helping the families also benefits everyone in another way – by getting the parents more involved in their children’s education.
“The purpose of this school is to give the kids a good education and to get the parents involved,” he said. “That’s the hard part, getting the parents involved. They’re either working — or they don’t care.”
Poinciana was one of the fastest growing communities in the past decade and experienced a residential construction boom that pushed the 10 villages here to a population that surpassed 84,000. Although still technically considered a rural community by the federal government because Poinciana was built on unincorporated parts of Osceola and Polk counties, the community now has a population higher than some neighboring cities, like St. Cloud and Haines City.
When the housing market crashed in 2008, it left a lot of local families struggling to make ends meet – something that Alvarez and Claudio said they see every day at their school.
“We have kids who are homeless,” Alvarez said. “We found this out through the grapevine.”
That’s why the school is always looking for ways to feed those tiny faces, Claudio said.
“Little Caesar’s works with us,” Claudio said of the pizza chain estimated to be the fourth largest in the United States.
“The students collect the proof of purchase receipts, and give them to Little Caesar’s, and they have pizza nights for us,” Claudio said.

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