For the better part of the last decade, the number of low-income students in Seattle has steadily declined.

In just the last six years, the number of students living in poverty enrolled at Seattle Public Schools has dropped by 16 percent, according to new data from the state Education Department. Today, about a third of the district’s 50,000-plus students are eligible for free and discounted lunch, the main way the government measures student income levels. In fall 2013, it was 41%. That’s a drop of 3,574, from 21,527 to 17,953.

District officials noted the decline during a recent budget meeting because some federal and state funding depends on the number of students living in poverty. The demographic shift comes as they navigate the first year of a plan that promises to improve outcomes for students of color, who made up 88% of students living in poverty this year — a figure that has barely budged for a decade.

Those students will remain the district’s focus, especially as it contends with a recent rise in the number of homeless students, said Sherri Kokx, senior adviser to the superintendent. The prosperity boom in recent years has forced many to move outside the city for more affordable areas as the cost of living increased, she said.

“We as a city have pushed out more of our families,” said Kokx. “There really isn’t much of a middle class left here.” 

For example, at some schools, you can see both a taxi dropping off homeless or foster kids and a Tesla in the parking lot, said Zachary DeWolf, a School Board member and former program manager for All Home, King County’s coordinating agency on homelessness.

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The decline in overall poverty rates for the district coincides with an increase in the number of white students. Since 2009, the white student population in Seattle schools has surged by 25%. The only nonwhite group that has grown is multiracial students.

The district has been stratified by race and income for years. A lot of the demographic split is between student populations in the North End and South End of the city, both because of gentrification and the legacy of racist policies that excluded people of color from living in certain areas. Last school year, Rainier Beach High School’s student population was 98% students of color, while Ballard High School was 26%.

Southeast Seattle is the most racially and socioeconomically diverse region of the city, and 40% of the district’s black boys, the students at the heart of the new SPS plan, attend school there.

Those regional wealth divisions have produced wide disparities across the district’s schools.

Historically, a smaller share of the money the district raises for construction dollars has gone to schools in District 7 compared to other regions. District 7 is the area east of the Duwamish Waterway that runs from Beacon Hill to Rainier View.

At Roosevelt High, a North End campus, 11% of students are classified as low income. There, teachers have an average of 15.6 years of experience. At Rainier Beach, according to state data, 80% of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. There, teachers are much newer to the field, with an average of seven years in the classroom. Roosevelt banks about $1,000 more per pupil to spend on teachers’ salaries than Rainier Beach, consistent with a national reality: Teacher experience level largely determines salary, and high-poverty schools face more staff turnover than their more affluent counterparts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

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The district and School Board members have vowed to try to fix these inequities. The challenge that comes with more wealth, Kokx said, is communicating that the power imbalance is worth addressing.

“We have to convince people that this focus is going to make the whole system better,” she said.

Since students can qualify for free or reduced lunch in several ways, there is no apples-to-apples comparison between the city’s and the school district’s poverty rates. In a few different measurements of income level, the district’s overall decline in poverty mirrored that of Seattle residents at large.

Census data shows the number of Seattle residents whose incomes fall at or below 185% of the federal poverty level — one main way students qualify for the school lunch program — fell by about 13.5% between 2010 and 2018. For scale, 185% percent of the federal poverty level for one person is about $23,100 this year. But the district’s poverty rate is still higher than that of the city at large, a difference officials say stems from the added cost of raising children here.

SPS’ poverty figures stand out compared with the rest of the state and many of its neighbors. More than half of Washington state students are from low-income households.

Because poverty is tied to federal and state funding, fewer low-income students could also mean the district will have a harder time getting the additional support staff, like mental health counselors, that it wants in schools, said SPS budget director Linda Sebring.