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home : news : news   May 24, 2016

1/21/2013 5:36:00 AM
Cost of a free lunch: Local districts respond to growing needs

Cafeteria assistant Lori Pyszka (left) and head cook Jeanette Rodda serve lunches to students at Northwest Elementary School in La Salle last week. Like many area school districts, La Salle Elementary has seen the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches increase in recent years.NewsTribune photo/Amanda Whitlock
+ click to enlarge
Cafeteria assistant Lori Pyszka (left) and head cook Jeanette Rodda serve lunches to students at Northwest Elementary School in La Salle last week. Like many area school districts, La Salle Elementary has seen the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches increase in recent years.

NewsTribune photo/Amanda Whitlock
NewsTribune graphic/Larry KelseyData collected for the Illinois State Board of Education website.
+ click to enlarge
NewsTribune graphic/Larry Kelsey
Data collected for the Illinois State Board of Education website.
Matthew Baker
Staff Writer

It was lunchtime  at Northwest Elementary School in La Salle and students were lining up for trays of fish sticks, blueberries and French fries.
You couldn’t tell by looking at them, but about eight out of every 10 students in line qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. In other words, they come from low-income families.
While the percentages in La Salle Elementary School District may be some of the most staggering locally, there are few school districts in the area that haven’t seen an increase in low-income students in recent years. Only a handful of local public school districts have less than 40 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches through the federally funded National School Lunch Program.
“More and more, the people who are raising children are raising children in tough situations,” said La Salle Elementary superintendent Dan Marenda.
Families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals, while those earning between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals, for which students can be charged no more than 40 cents, according to the NSLP website. For the current school year, that would be an income of $29,965 or $42,643 for a family of four, respectively.
Even students who pay full-price, generally a couple dollars, are receiving lunch at less than cost because of the subsidized lunch program, Marenda explained.
“We try to run the program at break even,” he said.
Any profits that would come in through school lunches must be put back into kitchen improvements, he added.
The percentage of students qualifying for the lunch programs tend to drop in high school because fewer students take advantage of the school’s lunch program.

Beyond free lunches
The subsidized lunch program figures are really just an indicator of the larger problem of poverty in school districts.
“Those numbers typically reflect other needs beside the lunch program,” said Jay McCracken, superintendent of Putnam County School District. Before taking his position in Putnam County, which has a relatively low number of students — about 33 percent — qualifying for the low-income lunch programs, he was an assistant principal at Northwest Elementary at the time when the number of low-income students was breaking 70 percent.
Marenda said, “There tends to be a higher percentage of students who are diagnosed with learning problems from that demographic of students, so there’s an impact there, obviously.”
Since public schools can’t pick and choose which students to teach, he said the districts must provide specialized educational programs to help these students, which only adds to a district’s expenses.
 Reaching certain levels of low-income students can qualify districts for some state and federal funding increases, Marenda said, but when the state is reducing educational funding overall, as it has in recent years, poor students in poor school districts feel the brunt of the cuts.
“When you’re already down, you keep getting pushed farther down,” he said.
Spring Valley Elementary Schools superintendent Jim Hermes said a big reason behind his district’s push to increase the number of computers and iPads students have access to was in response to the needs of low-income students.
“A lot of those students don’t get what those non-low-income students receive at home,” he said.
By putting a piece of technology in every student’s hands, the district is able to help “level the playing field” between students of different socio-economic backgrounds, he said.
The Illinois Interactive Report Card website shows Spring Valley’s low-income student population has more than doubled to 53 percent since 2000. The IIRC defines low-income students as those coming from families “receiving public aid, living in institutions for neglected or delinquent children, being supported in foster homes with public funds, or eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches.”

On the move
High student mobility rates tend to go hand-in-hand with low-income populations. A district’s mobility rate is a measure of how many students move into and out of a district within a school year. At Northwest Elementary, for example, this year there already have been 77 students moving into the district and 40 moving out, principal Karen Steindorf said.
“It’s an interruption of the culture of the classroom,” she said.
Those incoming students often show up without supplies and in some cases they aren’t academically prepared for the grade levels they are initially placed in. Steindorf said a teacher will usually spend three hours of a student’s first week in the district getting a sense of the student’s abilities and acclimating the student to the school culture. In cases of students with previously undiagnosed learning disabilities, it may take six to eight weeks before the student can be placed in an appropriate class and receive needed services, she said.
These conditions are not easy on students, either, Marenda said.
When a child is regularly moving because a parent needs to find a new job or place to live, studying often isn’t a top priority, he said.
“It doesn’t mean the people aren’t working,” Marenda said. “We have a lot of what are called working poor.”
Those are families in which parents may be working more than one job and still don’t earn enough to “live at a higher standard,” he explained. In those cases, there is even more need for before- and after-school care programs for students because parents are busy working.

Getting help
Despite the freezing temperatures outside, Steindorf said many students come to school without coats, hats or gloves, often because they just don’t own any.
“We typically go through 20 coats a year and 30 hats and mittens,” she said.
These items are donated to the school each year and given to students who need them. Similarly, the school receives classroom supplies for students from the United Way of Illinois Valley’s HUSKY program each year. Already this year’s entire stockpile of donated supplies has been distributed, Steindorf said.
“We actually are very blessed to have some organizations locally that help those families, as well,” McCracken said.
But donations alone can’t change the myriad problems that cause poverty in a community. From economic recession and job loss to the availability of low-income housing and the current school funding system, the factors causing these problems aren’t easily solved.
“That’s something that all the area superintendents are looking at: what has caused this movement, the shift,” Hermes said of the growing number of low-income students.
Marenda said there is a need to reconsider an educational funding system in which a district’s revenue is largely based on local property values. Under this model, a district with little local property wealth will be hit hardest when outside funding falls short.
“The state of Illinois and the federal government have to recognize this and admit it before there’s going to be any changes,” Marenda said.
As local school administrators become more aware of the needs in the community there is a responsibility for the school districts to become safe havens for students and families looking to have the best possible educational opportunities, McCracken said.
“I think it’s just important for the community to pull together as a whole and often the school is the center of that community,” he said.

Matthew Baker can be reached at (815) 220-6933, or

Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Article comment by: METALWORKER

Does anyone think that the reason for all the schools reportin financial troubles has to do with an election coming up in a little over a month?
One of the items on that ballot will be a county wide salws tax.
Another item on that ballot will be the county board seeking home rule and if they get they will institute another one percent sales tax.
Do you feel the hand in your pocket?

Posted: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Article comment by: MotherEarthSpeaks

This article speaks to the reality of many families in La Salle. Add to that the elders who are living on a fixed income, and those who work two to three jobs to house, feed, and clothe themselves.
La Salle city govenrment, aldermen and mayor, seem immune to compassion as they raised the water rates that all of these families pay, and now commit to an increased burden for building more parks that will be costly to build and maintain.
It is time to focus on the issue at hand, politicians, bankers, lawyers, and business men, and create a way to assist these families.
Starvation, freezing, and begging are not what the city of La Salle stands for, is it?
Thank you NT for giving faces to the true life in La Salle, ones that the leadership has forgotten.

Posted: Monday, January 21, 2013
Article comment by: fosterbw99

And yet, our High School district has an extra six million sitting around to build a sports complex - which is no needed.

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