You can get a free lunch in District 11
But do numbers mean over half of students poor?

       For the first time in its history, District 11 could find more than half of its 28,000-some students qualifying for federally funded free or reduced lunches. A recent projection by the district's Title 1 office estimates 50.13 percent will be eligible in the 2009-10 school year, with actual numbers to become available after October.

Bijou School students Lee DeArment (left) and Jordan Mathis serve out lunch at the school recently. They earn points for working and also get free food, they explained. Having food preparation on site (at the former Whittier Elementary, to which the school moved this year) is a first for Bijou, which had no kitchen at its former location in what remained of the original Bristol school site on North Walnut Street.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Schools on the Westside usually average about 3 percent less than the district as a whole, D-11 figures indicate.
       The district-wide percentage compares with nine years ago, when 31 percent of its students were eligible.
       So does this mean half the district's students are now living in poverty? Technically no, because students qualifying for free lunches can come from families making up to 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and, for reduced lunches, up to 185 percent, according to the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which runs the National School Lunch program. For example, the U.S. Department Health and Human Services (HHS) has set the poverty cut-off for a family of four this year at $22,050, its website states. But a family of four making $40,793 is eligible for a reduced-price school lunch, according to the guidelines established by the USDA and thus required of District 11.
       Nevertheless, Rick Hughes, D-11 director of Food and Nutrition Services, believes the needs are real. The federal determination “only takes income levels into account,” he said, “but I think there are a lot of things families have going on that are expensive, such as child support, overspending, cost of housing, or losing a job. It's pretty easy for a family to get turned upside down, especially in the tough economic times we're in.”
       The numbers of students in the free or reduced category are also used to determine their schools' status under Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which is intended to improve academic achievement in students who are less well off). Higher numbers of Title 1 students (or Title 1 schools, if they are at or near 75 percent), put them in line for educational-assistance programs, such as the Reading First program that Pike Elementary used to help it become the top-ranked Title 1 school in the state last year.
       Holly Brilliant, District 11 Title 1 coordinator, is not sure why the district's free-and-reduced numbers are going up (an average of 2 to 4 percent a year, according to Hughes). She said in an interview that part of the reason may be “the age of the district,” but suggested such increases are “reflective of the kinds of trends we're seeing nationwide. Some school districts, such as in the Deep South, are much, much higher than 50 percent.”
       The district uses the word “poverty” when referring to Title 1 - for example, the term “poverty rate” is used on the district website when listing schools' Title 1 percentages. How-ever, Brilliant conceded that in cases of income levels close to 185 percent above the federal poverty line, “I don't think it's accurate to say it is poverty.”
       According to the district website, three Westside elementaries qualify as Title 1 schools. These are Bristol, Midland and West, all of which are projected above 70 percent for this year.
       The following are the Westside school-by-school Title 1 percentages, as extrapolated from October '08:
       Elementaries - Howbert, 36.68%; Bristol, 74.59%; Buena Vista, 49.57%; Jackson, 58.88%; Midland, 72.82%; West, 72.45%; middle schools - Holmes, 39.76%; West 57.64%; High schools - Coronado, 29.30%; Bijou, 50.0%.
       The district's website states that “the purpose of Title I is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging state academic achievement standards and state academic assessments.”
       The National School Lunch program is open to families throughout the school year. A form needs to be filled out - except in the cases of most foster children and kids from families getting food stamps, program information states.
       Once a form gets turned in, Hughes said his staff will speedily process it, so that students can get the price break on their meals by the next day. “It's a great, great system,” he said.
       Because of the potential for fraud, he and Brilliant both declined to give details on how district staff determines who gets free as opposed to reduced prices on their lunches.
       For any students on the program (free as well as reduced), there are other dining benefits as well. For all grades, Title 1 kids (free as well as reduced) get breakfast at no charge, and in grades K-2 - thanks to a state allocation - it's the same benefit for lunch as well.
       The following information (taken from the D-11 website) shows additional prices for students at the different school levels:
  • Elementary - $1.10 (full-price breakfast); $1.95 (full-price lunch), 40 cents (reduced-price lunch for grades 3-5).
  • Middle school - $1.20 (full-price breakfast); $2.10 (full-price lunch), 40 cents (reduced-price lunch).
  • High school - $1.20 (full-price breakfast); $2.35 (full-price lunch), 40 cents (reduced-price lunch).
           One Westside school is getting hot meals on site that didn't get them before. That is the Bijou School (alternative high school). In the past, the meals for the Bijou students actually were prepared at Bristol, because until this year Bijou (which has 50 percent Title 1 students) had no cooking facilities. But that has changed, with Bijou moving to the old Whittier school and inheriting its meal-preparation capabilities. According to kitchen manager Victoria Martinez, an average of 30 to 40 of the school's 130-some students have been making use of the facility.

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