BROOKSVILLE - About 71 percent of middle and elementary students in Hernando County qualify for and receive free or reduced lunch, with the vast majority qualifying for free lunch.
Districtwide, about 65 percent of all Hernando County students qualify for and receive free and reduced meals at school, which is the norm for districts across the state. In 2013, 55 of Florida's 67 school districts reported half or more of their students were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, compared to only 33 districts 10 years ago.
According to a Florida Department of Education accountability report released in May, the number of Hernando County students enrolled in the program has increased 54 percent since 2003.
The cumulative statewide increase during the same time period was 36 percent, the report shows, or a difference of 417,920 more students enrolled in the program than 10 years ago.
In 2003, there were 1,158,800 eligible students, and now there are 1,576,720 statewide.
The numbers correspond with school performance for the 2012-13 school year. The five highest performing middle and elementary schools in Hernando County, which earned A and B grades, have a combined average of 16 percent less students on free and reduced lunch than schools that earned C grades, district data shows.
District data also shows every school that earned a C grade or lower this year, with the exception of Powell Middle School and J.D. Floyd, are classified by the state as "low-economic schools," meaning 75 percent or more of students qualify for and receive free or reduced lunch.
Deltona Elementary is at the top of that list with more than 84 percent of its students enrolled in the program. But the school proved this year there are exceptions to what 30 years of research studies have concluded, which is that schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students generally demonstrate lower levels of achievement than schools with lower concentrations of economically disadvantaged students.
While recent data suggests this statement from Hernando County School District Department of Food and Nutrition holds mostly true for the district, Deltona stands alone as the only school to raise a letter grade.
According to Deltona principal Debi Vermette, the D school raised its grade to a C and was just points away from a B.
"We believe that all students will achieve regardless of income," she said. "You have to believe all children will achieve a high grade, regardless of what they've been through or where they come from."
None of the schools that earned A or B grades meet the state's classification as "low-economic schools," district and FDOE data shows.
However, more than half of students who attend the highest-performing schools in the district - Chocachatti, Suncoast, Brooksville, Challenger and West Hernando Middle - also qualify for and receive free or reduced-price meals.
The combined percentage of students attending these schools who qualify is just shy of 60 percent, according to district data. A little more than 76 percent of students attending schools with a C, D, or F grade qualify.
Brooksville Elementary also ranks among schools that's proven to make learning gains and improve grades with a high percentage of students that qualify for free and reduced lunch: 73 percent.
"Brooksville Elementary works to keep their students' grades up, regardless," said School Board member and longtime volunteer at the school Cynthia Moore.
"One day before FCAT, the students have breakfast. It's like a family, and everybody works together."
Ron Vat Matre, executive director of the nonprofit inter-faith organization People Helping People in Hernando County, has been working with eight Title I schools in the district since 2010 through their "Weekend Blessings: Feeding Hernando County Children" program.
"We go to the current schools and ask for the bottom 50 or 60," he said. "We want the neediest of the needy. Last school year we took care of a little more than 500 students."
The program provides weekend food for children throughout the school year who otherwise would not have sufficient food, and go to school hungry on Mondays, he said.
The organization provides food in backpacks on Friday, and retrieves the empty backpacks the following week. The program continues to grow out of necessity, he said.
To contact People Helping People, call (352) 650-3702 or go to www.phpinhc.org.