Free lunch sign ups crucial for accurate count of low-income students
September 30, 2013 | By Jane Meredith Adams | 17 Comments
Let the counting begin.
With millions of dollars available under the new finance formula for schools with large numbers of low-income students, districts are pulling out all the stops to make sure they get an accurate count of their high-needs students. Because the new system defines “low income” as students who are eligible for the federal free- and reduced-price meals program, some districts are offering free Raiders tickets, ice cream parties, tickets to the county fair and other perks to encourage families to sign up for the National School Lunch Program.
Counting low-income students is an annual fall rite at most districts, which use the data for a variety of programs, but this year the count matters more than ever. Under the K-12 finance formula signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in July, districts can receive additional funds for every high-needs student enrolled – as much as $3,000 per student once the formula is fully funded over the next eight years. High-needs students are defined as low-income, English learners or foster youth.
Among the unknowns in this first-year rollout of the funding formula is the number of low-income students who aren’t signed up for free- and reduced-price meals, and won’t be included in the count.
“There’s money on the table,” said Julie Cullen, a UC San Diego economics professor who has studied school funding. “Schools should be working to get the funds.”
Researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-enrolled in the school lunch program, possibly because of a perceived stigma of receiving free lunch, according to the Federal Education Budget Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan and nonprofit research group.
Cullen says that’s all the more reason for districts to make sure they are identifying every low-income student.
Oakland Unified has embarked on an ambitious campaign to do just that.
“There are a lot of high school and middle school students who aren’t signed up,” said Jennifer LeBarre, executive director of nutrition services for the district. To entice more teens and their families to sign up, the district is holding a contest pitting middle and high schools in the district against one another. The schools that sign up the most students for the lunch program will receive free tickets to Oakland Raiders games to hand out to students and their families. The district is handing out 1,400 tickets in all, donated by the Raiders.
The district has also embarked on an advertising campaign to encourage families to sign up. Banners at Oakland schools proclaim: “Meal applications provide more than just a free lunch!” and tout the potential benefits to schools, including “millions of dollars for Oakland students.” The district is also spreading the word that families in the free- and reduced-price meal program are eligible for other perks, including discounts on Internet service through Comcast, discounted fees for the Advanced Placement and SAT exams, and free after-school programs.
About 67 percent of students in the Oakland district are currently enrolled in the meals program, LeBarre said. Officials hope to get that number to 80 percent.
Each low-income student would bring an additional $2,006 a year to the Oakland district once the finance formula is fully implemented in eight years, she said.
With 36,000 students in the district, the money quickly adds up: Every 1 percent gain in enrollment in the meals program would bring an additional $200,000 to the district for the 2014-15 academic year alone, district spokesman Troy Flint said in an email.
Oakland is not alone in wooing families to sign up for meals. In Fresno, 55,000 free student tickets to the Big Fresno Fair are being offered to students that turn in meal application forms, whether they qualify for the meals or not.
Ice cream parties, awards, phone calls from teachers and daily email updates on meal program enrollment numbers are among the motivators in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, where all of the elementary schools are in the midst of collecting information to identify low-income students.
“We’re doing whatever we can to make sure students are correctly identified and get the resources they can,” said Zim Hoang, testing and assessment coordinator at the Coachella district.
Other districts have taken a more low-key approach toward spreading the word that schools can reap additional money based on how many students are eligible for subsidized meals.
“We have not increased outreach efforts, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do so in the future,” said Cecelia Slater, nutrition services branch director at Long Beach Unified School District. “We have a strong outreach effort now.”
Long Beach will, however, include information on the new Local Control Funding Formula and the importance of signing up for the meals program in automated phone calls to district families next month, Slater said.
Berkeley Unified School District mentioned the new revenue in its back-to-school newsletter for families, with key points in bold letters: “The state’s new funding formula for public education in California rewards districts with additional funds for each student who qualifies for free and reduced meal services. It is important to have all BUSD families complete the form so that each student is counted.”
In many districts, signing up families for free- and reduced-price meals is already an efficient outreach operation that includes mailing forms home in summer information packets, handing out fliers at school registration, sending follow-up letters and initiating automated phone call reminders. The sign-ups are important not only for the meal program, but also so that schools can qualify for federal poverty programs such as Title 1, which brings money for instructional assistance.
But other districts are just starting to recognize the financial importance of identifying every low-income student.
“As they begin to understand the Local Control Funding Formula and what it means as far as data collection, they’ll gear up and do that outreach,” said Maureen Evans, vice president of School Services of California, a Sacramento-based consulting firm. She added, “Anything districts can do to get the right count we see as critical.”
H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the California Department of Finance, agreed.
The outreach for additional sign-ups “should be recognized for what it truly is,” Palmer said, “an attempt to ensure that California’s neediest students are accounted for.”
Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her @JaneAdams.