RICHLAND — The 8-year-old boy wearing a lime green T-shirt with a few small holes and worn jeans counted on his fingers as he worked through a series of subtraction problems.
When handed a worksheet on compound words, he hunched over the table to write.
"I'm good at this," he said, smiling.
The boy is one of about 26 students from Richland's Marcus Whitman Elementary School receiving tutoring and breakfast twice a week at nearby West Side Church.
As he munched on cereal and a granola bar, the second-grader said he didn't get much help on schoolwork from his parents.
"They're mostly busy because we have a baby in the house and she cries a lot," he said.
Asked if his parents also were busy because of their jobs, he shook his head. His dad lost his job again, the boy said, wiping a hot chocolate mustache from around his mouth.
Poverty can be found in virtually every school in the Mid-Columbia -- even in Richland, where the population has one of the highest percentages of scientists and engineers in the nation because of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and environmental cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The percentage of Richland School District students qualifying for free or reduced price meals, used to determine income status, was at 30 percent in 2011, up from 19 percent in 2006.
A dip in reading and math test scores accompanied the increase in low-income students.
It is a situation seen in schools throughout the Mid-Columbia. In Richland, it led teachers and administrators not only to adjust teaching methods, but also to rally community resources to help students and their families.
"Schools cannot serve these children alone," said Karen Weakley, a consultant with Educational Service District 123, in an email to the Herald. She works with schools to help teachers understand the needs and challenges of low-income students.
More than 60 percent of Richland eighth-graders were meeting math standards and more than 68 percent were meeting reading standards in 2006, according to statistics from the Center for Education Data & Research at the University of Washington at Bothell. Those scores were near or above state averages.
The numbers were stable even as the number of students qualifying for discounted meals increased. However, once 28 percent of district eighth-graders were listed as low-income beginning in 2008 -- and that number continued to grow -- math test scores fell as much as 17 percentage points. Reading scores also dropped.
Fifth-grade math scores districtwide dropped 12 percentage points, from 68 percent to 56 percent, when the number of students receiving subsidized meals reached 30 percent. Fifth-grade reading scores consistently were above 80 percent, but since have dropped to closer to 75 percent.
Test scores at other grade levels in ESD 123 -- which serves 23 school districts in seven counties -- showed a similar decline during the past few years as more students qualified for meal subsidies, such as in the Kiona-Benton City and Finley districts.
School officials said they can't pinpoint what caused the increase of low-income students. The national recession could have left families without a wage earner, or more families could be aware of government assistance they qualify for.
Low-income students face a number of challenges because of their families' financial situation, officials said. They may not have a place in their home to do homework, or they might not have a permanent home at all. Meals may not be consistent. The kids might not always have an adult they can rely on.
"They don't know where they're going to be that night; they don't know how they're going to eat," said Rick Donahoe, a Richland School Board member, during a recent board meeting. "Learning isn't their top priority."
Mike Hansen, assistant superintendent in Richland, said the district's students continue to perform well overall in comparison with school districts of similar size and demographics in the state.
However, Hansen told board members last month that Richland's low-income students aren't performing as well as low-income students in other districts.
In Richland, some schools have more low-income students than others. About 54 percent of Marcus Whitman's students received discounted meals in 2010-11, according to state reports. That's up from 32 percent in 2005-06.
At Marcus Whitman, at least 70 percent of third- through fifth-grade students were passing state assessments in reading in 2005-06, and about 60 percent or more were meeting math standards.
By the 2010-11 school year, all three grades were below 70 percent in reading and below 55 percent in math.
Such schools also tend to have lower parent attendance for teacher conferences. Conferences typically are held during working hours, a problem for single and working parents.
Richland school officials have taken several approaches to tackle the issues holding back low-income students.
New students are tested to determine their educational needs so they can get academic assistance, if needed.
Administrators work with families to see if children need other services, such as Medicaid. Hansen said schools schedule teacher conference times outside traditional working hours, making it easier for some parents to attend.
Support from a school's community is especially critical, school officials said.
"Children in poverty need resources beyond pencils and paper," Weakley said. "They need access to role models within their school and community who believe they can succeed."
West Side Church in Richland has stepped in to provide this support to Marcus Whitman students. And Jason Lee Elementary School paired up with a neighboring church.
Phyllis Strickler, a Richland School Board member and the program coordinator at West Side Church, said any student needing academic assistance is welcome at the church's morning sessions.
Volunteers said they sometimes hear students talk about financial difficulties at home. Their focus, though, is on making the church a safe and welcoming place for the students, in addition to serving as mentors and role models.
"It beats baking cookies," said Marion Dowell, a volunteer.
Marcus Whitman counselor Jack Williams said West Side Church also provides other assistance for students.
A kindergartner was missing class regularly one winter, he said. The mother, a single parent on a fixed income, was pregnant and had another child at home. Those issues made her unable to get her child to school, Williams said.
West Side subsequently volunteered to pick the kindergartner up each day.
"This mom can't believe her luck," Williams said. "Her daughter gets to come to school, and she's not burdened by the fact she's missing days."
The church also adopts families during the holidays, providing food and gifts to families in need. Bethel Church, near the intersection of Keene and Shockley roads, plays host to a fall festival for all Marcus Whitman students each year.
Districtwide, test scores have bounced back as of 2011, although they remain lower than in 2006. Hansen said the achievement gap has narrowed, but it still needs attention. Schools such as Marcus Whitman have benefited because of community help, but schools still need volunteers, even if it's reading to a student for a half-hour a week.
But whenever a student comes up to Williams and tells him how glad they are to be in school that day or how happy they were with gifts their family received as a donation at Christmas, he said he knows the school and community are fulfilling a need.
"Having that support is just huge," he said.