COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. — Half an hour before classes begin at Chase County Elementary School, dozens of children congregate in the gym, their conversations creating an overpowering din. Dozens more eat breakfast in the adjacent cafeteria.
More than 80% of the school's 160 children, kindergarten through fourth grade, typically remain at school into the evening -- reading, playing games or learning to dance while their parents work.
The rural school occasionally acts as a clothing bank, handing out a warm coat or a change of shirt or pants. For two weeks in February, it even served as the only roller-skating rink in tiny Cottonwood Falls, a town of less than 1,000 midway between Topeka and Wichita.
In both rural and urban communities across the nation, schools play similarly broad roles, dispensing medicine, offering counseling, attempting to build character and keeping kids out of trouble in the afternoon.
At Chase, Principal Diane Dodez said she learned early in her five-year tenure that telling families that their children couldn't come to school early didn't do much good. Parents dropped them off anyway because of their work schedules. Opening the gym early, therefore, serves a larger community need.
Educators say demands on schools have increased over the past decade because communities, parents and states want schools to combat social problems: children who need medical checkups, clothes, a healthy meal; children who come from troubled families.
Those demands are the reasons that some Kansas education officials have felt squeezed financially in recent years, even though the state spends $2.6 billion -- more than half of its general revenues -- on public schools each year.
Educators throughout the nation say support services are important to a suitable education because a child who is hungry or stressed cannot concentrate on history or math.
"Most people don't understand that schools are a microcosm of society," said Tamara Cotman, the Wichita district's assistant superintendent of elementary schools. "Everything that happens in the world comes into the school."
In the 44,000-student Charleston County, S.C., district, Supt. Maria Goodloe said schools' duties seem to grow every year as they attempt to support families, so children do not have distractions from learning.
"We're really taking care of kids in a way that they aren't being taken care of at home," she said. "It's a symptom of our environment, where we have babies having babies."
The role of schools in meeting children's noninstructional needs is almost as old in Kansas as Chase, which opened in 1904. A state mandate that schoolchildren receive annual dental exams, for example, dates to 1915.
But in recent decades, the list of required services has grown. Among them are special education, which became mandatory in 1974, and breakfast programs.
Outside events also increase the burden.
In Havre, Mont., a security committee has been meeting regularly for eight years and was initially supposed to handle only special projects. Today, education, municipal and law enforcement officials in the central Montana community of 9,600 expect to use school buses to move residents and students to shelters should a disaster occur.
Supt. Kirk J. Miller, chairman of Montana's Board of Public Education, said because schools take on new responsibilities and are reluctant to consider dropping others, "you're running a sprint most of the time."
Three years ago, Havre schools expanded breakfast programs to all five of its campuses. The district contracts with a Boys & Girls Club to provide after-school activities for 600 of its 2,000 students.
Chase began its breakfast program in 1992, one year before breakfasts for eligible children became mandatory throughout Kansas. About 50 children eat at school every morning, although the count can spike when a favorite such as breakfast pizza or biscuits and gravy is offered.
Head cook Patsy Crutsinger said the need for the program became clear as hungry children kept complaining about stomachaches.
"Many times, teachers would be sending their kids down here midmorning," she said, referring to the cafeteria.
Most of the children who eat breakfast at Chase get the meal free or for less than the $1.25 price that the school charges.
Meanwhile, about 30% of the 461 schoolchildren in the rural Chase County district qualify for free lunches. Those are the ones considered at risk of failing.
At Edisto Elementary School in Orangeburg, S.C., a student congress of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders has toy and food drives to aid less-fortunate families. This year, the school district provided funding for a part-time mental health counselor for the 675-student school.
"We noticed that a lot of our students faced social and emotional issues," Principal Belinda Johnson said.
Clothing banks are another service for poor or at-risk children.