When Rock Hill school officials surveyed teachers, nurses and guidance counselors last spring to pinpoint problems that keep students from learning, they uncovered a disturbing statistic: one in 17 Rock Hill students is malnourished.
School officials identified at least 1,117 students they believe leave school each Friday and don't eat another full meal until they return Monday.
"I was stunned," said Serena Williams, the school district's community services coordinator. "It's something that we never really thought about."
The school system hopes to feed them -- and they're looking for help.
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On Friday, the district will kick off "Back the Pack," a permanent fundraiser and food drive that aims to send kids home with backpacks stuffed with food.
School officials are asking for donations of food, money and books. People can take donations to several designated locations in Rock Hill.
"This is a problem we need help with," Williams said.
Hungry students struggle to focus. They are more likely to make poor grades or miss class for illness. They also suffer from anxieties and depression more often than others.
It's unclear how pervasive malnourishment is among York County students. Rock Hill is the first of the county's four school districts to quantify the problem -- one that appears to be growing.
"We get a lot of families that need food with kids in the school system," said Susan Dean, executive director of Pilgrim's Inn, a Rock Hill women's shelter and food pantry. The number has "absolutely gone up."
During the first half of this year, Pilgrim's Inn served food to 2,534 hungry people in 1,612 households. Many of those are children.
That's at least a 30 percent jump from the same time last year, Dean said.
Teachers and principals have suspected that kids were hungry for some time, Williams said.
India Hook Elementary started sending food home with kids when teachers noticed tell-tale signs of hunger.
Two weeks into the school year, teachers saw children taking food from others during lunch. Some students arrived on late buses and cried when they thought breakfast was over, said principal Crystal Guyton, who made sure they got something to eat.
Guyton said one teacher asked her to look into a foul classroom odor. Guyton discovered it was a first-grader who jammed cafeteria food in his backpack to take home.
That student is now one of several who gets a bag of food on Fridays.
"He'll get that backpack and just skip down the hall like it's the best thing in the world," Guyton said. "It's a reality check for a lot of us to see how excited kids can get over food."
In other schools, students ask lunchroom workers for leftovers to take home, and teachers bring snacks to class for hungry kids.
"We hear from principals who say they look at children and see they're starving," Williams said.
Rock Hill schools superintendent Lynn Moody said she hopes to start stuffing backpacks the week of Oct. 10.
Elementary students -- the district believes nearly 400 of them are undernourished -- will get the first wave of donations. As the program continues, it will include middle and high schoolers, school officials said.
Teachers will try to be discreet. Some will visit classes while kids are at lunch or recess and fill backpacks. At other schools, students will be called out of class to receive food and books.
During a recent school board meeting, Williams described her visit to classroom where she told students about Back the Pack and the fact that one in 17 students is hungry. After she left the class, Williams said, she learned that a student approached the teacher and said, "I'm one of those 17."
Willams' voice broke. She paused and wiped tears from her eyes, then asked for support: "Please help. ... They're suffering in silence."