Recruiting students for meals program pays off for East Side Union

With millions of dollars in extra state funding at stake, the staff of the East Side Union High School District spent months recruiting low-income students to sign up for the federal school meals program with the zeal of an Army recruiter.

Overfelt High sophomore Marilyn Lopez and senior Ernesto Monarres eat brunch during the morning break. They're among the 87 percent of students at the school who signed up for the free and reduced meals program. Credit: John Fensterwald

Overfelt High sophomore Marilyn Lopez and senior Ernesto Monarres eat brunch during the morning break. They’re among the 87 percent of students at the school who signed up for the free and reduced-price meals program. Credit: John Fensterwald

The campaign paid off. Enrollment in the meals program increased. And because program enrollment is what districts use to identify low-income students, East Side Union will receive more money based on a new funding formula that targets those students.

The new Local Control Funding Formula adds 20 percent to the yearly base for every English learner, foster youth and low-income student in a district. At East Side Union, increasing its free and reduced-price lunch eligibility from 42 percent of the 22,700 students in the district to 51 percent will translate to about $800,000 more in funding next year. This will increase to an estimated $2.7 million when the transition to full funding under the formula is reached, potentially in six years, said Marcus Battle, associate superintendent for business services. Including English learners nudged the district’s proportion of targeted students to 55 percent, at which point districts get additional dollars. 

While perseverance worked, what clinched the deal was not an appeal to help the district. It was the pitch to families’ self-interest. Low-income students enrolled in the meals program qualify for reduced fees for Advanced Placement exams – the price drops from $85 to $5 – and waived fees for the college SAT and ACT exams and for applying to state universities, said Julie Kasberger, East Side Union’s director of general services, which includes the lunch program.

Low-income families also qualify for an Internet discount through Comcast’s Internet Essentials, a program that is available wherever Comcast provides service in California and other states. Subscribers get monthly high-speed Internet service for $9.95 per month and a low-cost computer.

“The computer was the biggest factor,” Kasberger said.”They’d ask, ‘Are you kidding, $149 for a computer?’ That was huge.”

At William C. Overfelt High one day last week, five students hurriedly eating cereal and bagels during a morning break said they didn’t know about the cheap Internet offer but all were aware of the big break in AP and SAT fees. The $170 savings from two AP tests more than offset the cost of prom, observed senior Ernesto Monarres.

With 87 percent of students signed up for reduced price meals, participation at Overfelt has been high for years. Principal Vito Chiala starts notifying incoming ninth graders during the summer before school, and makes signing up for the meals program part of enrollment.

But generally in high school districts, participation in the meals program historically takes a big dip from the level in elementary districts. High school kids have other options, like buying snacks on campus, and some students don’t want to reveal they’re from low-income families. About two-thirds of the students in East Side Union’s seven K-8 feeder districts enroll each year in the meals program; last year, only 42 percent of East Side Union’s students did. That translates to nearly four out of 10 students who were eligible when they were younger but declined to sign up in high school.

Compounding the challenge for East Side Union was that some students in the feeder elementary districts didn’t have to enroll annually to be eligible. They attended schools in which nearly every student was low-income. For those schools, called Provision 2 schools, the federal government qualified all students without requiring their families to submit the annual paperwork. Some low-income families might never have filled out the forms before.

“All of a sudden they are being asked to fill out an application annually,” Kasberger said. She knew pushing up enrollment requires a lot of work. “We really put a lot of time into it,” she said.

She and her staff were strategic, identifying the feeder schools with the highest participation rates and the high schools they attended. Then she set a reasonable goal for each high school. For example, at Independence High, the largest in the district, the goal was 58 percent participation, up from 43 percent last year, a difference of 450 students.

Starting with a press release last August, the district made daily announcements on School Loop, the software linking parents to school activities. They also visited school site councils, made up of teachers and parents who are active in school issues. A three-member team went daily to every high school and made appointments to meet with students in groups of five to discuss how to fill out the applications. She targeted the 1,200 students who had failed to re-enroll within the first month of school, as the law requires.

The staff offered to help parents complete the form, available in three languages. The form “can be daunting,” Kasberger said, and requires a signature from the parent or guardian attesting to the truth of the information. It required the disclosure of every person living in a household and their sources of income, including food stamps. Some were confused by the breakdown of weekly, monthly or yearly incomes. Any mistake is a disqualifier. Kasberger said undocumented parents, fearful of being deported, had to be coaxed to sign up, since the form asked for a Social Security number they didn’t have. They had to put an X in the box instead.

“We said, ‘We’re not the INS,’” Kasberger said.

Responding to complaints from districts about the intense time and effort involved with registration, some legislators are calling for eliminating annual income verification, at least for the purpose of determining the funding formula. Otherwise, Kasberger will be back at it again in the fall.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.


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13 Responses to “Recruiting students for meals program pays off for East Side Union”

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  1. Patti F on May 13, 2014 at 2:00 pm05/13/2014 2:00 pm

    • 000

    I pray that we never have to defend this country because the Dept. of Defense is going to be broke after funding all these feeding programs. I hate to say it, but it’s also ruining the work ethic in this country. We see it everyday! We have employees that stay under that Financial Radar, so they don’t lose all the free stuff! I find it so sad. We are encouraging fraud with all the free benefits.

  2. John H on May 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm05/12/2014 1:20 pm

    • 000

    A discomforting post. Having reread the article I’m still not sure whether East Side hustled to sign these students up because of the extra funding, or because it was the right thing, morally, socially, educationally, to do. My instinct tells me it’s the latter, but the slant of the article carries a strong hint of the former. By extension, that would mean that if LCFF wasn’t at stake these kids would still be hungry. I don’t believe that’s the district’s story, but that’s certainly the message I get from the posting, which is incredibly sad.


    • navigio on May 12, 2014 at 5:12 pm05/12/2014 5:12 pm

      • 000

      I apologize for some cementing your sadness, but this is clearly only about the money. Districts could’ve done this before LCFF if they felt it was a benefit to their students. For even more dismay, note that the superintendent of LA USD complained that this new method of proof was too burdensome, and explicitly not worth it.

      • Manuel on May 15, 2014 at 9:07 am05/15/2014 9:07 am

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        It is my opinion that the Superintendent was simply behaving politically.

        As things stand, LAUSD funds the bare rock bottom for a given school operations (since the Ed Code does not define what a “free public education” must include). Hence, any extra money received by a school used to come from the categoricals: Title I, EIA, and Special Ed. And if the school was a magnet, then TIIG.

        That has been changed by LCFF since the theoretical amount of funds going to the old EIA has increased from roughly $115 million to nearly $1 billion within 2013-14 (if one believes the 2013-14 budget and the 2nd interim financial report). Given those amounts, you can bet that it is worth it to make sure all eligible students are recruited to sign up for the NSLP application.

        FWiW, the number of students in the NSLP went up when ARRA funds came in and dropped when LAUSD increased the school-eligibility threshold to 50%. It went up for 2014-13 because of LCFF.

        A significant number of the schools that lost eligibility switched to affiliated charter status in order to get the categorical block grant. This path to increased funding is no longer available so now there is an uptick on the number of qualified schools. The increase is also due to the belief that LCFF would increase funding to these schools.

        Unfortunately, the proposed budget for 2014-15 does not distribute the “extra” LCFF funds equally and there is a fair amount of uncertainty as to what will happen if the Board votes to scrap the current proposal (which essentially funds the old “encroaching” programs while minimally improving services) in favor of giving the entirety of these extra funds to a select group of schools alleged to have a “high needs index.”

        Needless to say, this changes the situation from “class warfare” to “let the poor fight among themselves to decide who gets the whole pie.”

        • Don on May 15, 2014 at 9:38 am05/15/2014 9:38 am

          • 000

          Well, Manuel, you raise some great points as they apply not only in the LAUSD. But I do disagree with your conclusion. The LI, LEP and foster communities may fight among themselves for their proportional share of S and C grants, (an unfortunate and preventable fight had the legislature make sure that the grants were not flexible instead of the opposite), but that does not mean the end of class warfare over education funding. That is because the base grant is also flexible. In other words, there are few restrictions as to how any grant monies can be allocated to school sites and schools that are perceived as “rich” can be undercut at will be politically motivated policy makers. This is why without a per pupil minimum district flexibility and discretion is a terrible idea. After speaking with people at Ed Trust West I believe there is great concern over the lack of per pupil accountability in LCFF.

          • Manuel on May 15, 2014 at 10:50 pm05/15/2014 10:50 pm

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            Don, the Ed Trust West knew that that there is no per pupil accountability from the get-go and did nothing to fight it. At a recent event I attended, their rep would not say that the Emperor has no clothes because their allies were blatantly lobbying for the whole pie.

            For a while now, the Ed Trust West leadership kept advocating for funds to not be spent on unduplicated students attending schools not located in poor areas such as magnets. Now that the pendulum has swung all the way in that direction they express concern? Really?

            The problem at LAUSD is that only 82 schools have populations that are 50% or below Title I-eligible, and 41 of them are affiliated charters (thus they get their LCFF funds from the state not LAUSD). The 41 other “regular” schools serve 18,572 students, 4,187 of them Title I-eligible.

            Contrast those numbers with the enrollment of the Title I-receiving schools (465,962) which serve 377,219 students.

            Given these numbers, it is clear that funding the poor students in these 42 schools is a drop in the bucket. Yet, the Superintendent claims there is no money. And a certain Board Member screeches that funding these kids puts the other kids “further at risk.” Yeah, it is not class warfare…

            And now that Board Member wants all Supplemental and Concentration funds to go to a “selected” number of schools?

            Where is the fairness? Where is the “proportionality” as called for by the Ed Code?

            • Don on May 16, 2014 at 8:58 am05/16/2014 8:58 am

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              You are obviously more up on Ed West history than I. Nor do I closely watch LAUSD. There is a very different dynamic happening there compared with SF. Are you saying that Deasy is intent on distributing the funding too broadly? I’m not sure I caught your drift.

              Here the majority of LI/LE students (why do they bother with including foster when they are legally classified as LI anyway?) do not attend the schools within the Superintendent Zones – 16 schools out of 104 – the lowest performing schools. Those outsiders are unlikely to see much of that S and C money as the leadership is investing in turning around the The Big 16 and all the more so because of their failure to do it so far, despite the $45M SIG among 9 of those 16. Only 3 have out-performed.

              Not to be slow on the uptake but do think LCFF was written expressly to allow local policy makers to carve out large chunks of the available ed dollars and concentrate them at a relatively small group of schools, , just like policy here in SFUSD? Are you saying Deasy is doing the opposite? I’m really not clear on your point.

              When you say the emperor has no clothes are you referring to lack of per pupil accountability despite per pupil unduplicated headcount? Please explain.

            • Manuel on May 18, 2014 at 9:32 am05/18/2014 9:32 am

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              Don, although I was not there, I am sure that Ed West kept close tabs on how LCFF was negotiated between the Legislature and Gov. Brown. They would not have been doing their jobs if that wasn’t the case. Did they say anything about how the new statutes were written between the LCFF unveiling and its being voted into law? Did they say anything afterwards? It was only after the regulations were published that they started to say something. This is from the San Jose Mercury News:

              “A coalition of civil rights groups that includes Education Trust-West sent a letter Friday to Michael Kirst, board president, expressing strong concerns about whether money intended for disadvantaged students will really end up helping them. The advocacy group EdVoice sent a similar letter.”

              As for who their allies are, most of the AstroTurf groups in Los Angeles work closely with Ramanathan. In fact, he is now a member of the Board of Families in Schools, a group that routinely supports Deasy.

              Is Deasy distributing the Supplemental and Concentration funds on students? Not in my opinion. He is spending those funds on the “encroaching” programs he believes he has to pay for. He is now saying that these programs will improve outcomes (surprisingly, they didn’t before). Plus they are all being defined by his office not by local needs.

              To be clear: this is nothing about student needs, but all about LAUSD needs. And it is all a sham as the “report” by parents who were supposed to comment on Deasy’s budget got reduced to four innocuous statements. No questions, no analyis, just pabulum. This “oversight,” BTW, is required by the Ed Code. I hear that some members of the oversight panels are not amused.

              Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

              (And forget about reading this in the media; you have to read the documents produced by LAUSD or sit through the videos of the Board meetings.)

  3. Don on May 12, 2014 at 9:35 am05/12/2014 9:35 am

    • 000

    LCFF has greatly increased the stakes for districts in their recruitment of NSLP applicants. And though there is some potential for fraud in such programs, the benefits far outweigh the costs associated with fraud. But not every family that qualifies necessarily wants to get a hand out from the government and they may check “not interested” for this reason. At the same time those families may not know that the benefits of qualification go well beyond a free lunch. Using Free and Reduced as a proxy for low-income is in need of an overhaul given the vastly increased stakes under LCFF. The USDA has strict limits the verification process which supplants the necessity of this state to accurately allocation LCFF dollars.

    But, once again, even if a student does qualify for Free and Reduced Meal Price, that doesn’t mean said student will receive any benefits from S&C grants.


    • Don on May 12, 2014 at 4:12 pm05/12/2014 4:12 pm

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      To restate my point in a different way – if you apply and qualify for the NCLP you expect to receive the free or reduced lunch, but you probably cannot expect to receive any of the supplemental or concentration grant funding unless you attend a school that has been targeted for it even though your qualification as a targeted student brings funding to your district. Why should LCFF have a lower level of per pupil accountability than LCFF?

      • Don on May 12, 2014 at 4:14 pm05/12/2014 4:14 pm

        • 000

        correction – Why should a LCFF have a lower level of per pupil accountability than NSLP?

  4. navigio on May 12, 2014 at 6:23 am05/12/2014 6:23 am

    • 000

    I wonder if the states estimates of unduplicated students included knowledge of these discrepancies.

    Also, family characteristics change as children grow. Just because a student was low income in elementary, it isn’t a given that they will continue to be low income when they’re in high school.


    • John Fensterwald on May 12, 2014 at 7:09 am05/12/2014 7:09 am

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      The Department of Finance used the free and reduced data on file. Colleague Jane Adams is looking into the impact, navigio, and will be writing about this soon. It’s a complex issue, since the federal government allowed some schools – those in clearly impoverished neighborhoods – annually to report 100 percent of their students qualified for free and reduced priced meal purposes. Those schools now had to document every student for funding formula purposes.

      You are right that some families work their way up out of poverty and no longer qualify. Certainly in the past decade, more often the opposite has been true, as unemployment stats attest.

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