Free and reduced lunch program comes under fire
By RUSSELL JONES
A snapshot from the state of how local schools performed on state tests show a sharp disparity in performances between those on free and reduced lunches and those who are not on the program. Now, a new change in federal law could compound that issue further.
A Trump administration proposed plan would tighten eligibility requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — know as SNAP. That program provides food support systems to low-income families, and participants with children in schools are automatically enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program.
The new change would limit broad-based categorical eligibility from families who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that allow them to be qualified in SNAP. This would reduce the number of families receiving nutritional assistance, and, consequently, cut the number of students who receive free and reduced lunches.
“It’s concerning,” said Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union — which consists of the Otter Valley Unified Union district as well as the Barstow Unified Union —superintendent Jeanńe Collins said. “It can already be difficult to encourage families to take advantage of the program” as it is, and often they are the families (and students) who need the most help.
Collins attributed the difficulty of getting families enrolled in the program to three issues:
• the stigma of being in the free and reduced lunch program,
• parents being unaware that they are eligible for the program, and
• the lengthy application process, which Collins said can be “onerous” and sometimes keeps families from applying.
At RNESU, 641 out of 1,471 students — 43.5 percent — were in the free and reduced lunch program in the school year that just ended. Collins said the program is significantly helpful for the students in the program.
“Lunch and breakfast are extremely important to learning,” she said. “For too many kids, the food they get at schools is the only meal they get during the day.”
Collins said that is one issue they consider when they are looking at closing for snowy weather.
“It’s not just the academic side of things, it’s the food security we worry about also,” the superintendent said.
Collins said over the past several years, the district has seen an increase in homelessness, custody (such as foster care), and kinship care (where the courts have not put the children in foster care, but they are being taken care of by relatives).
“Those people that are closer to the poverty line are the ones who will be affected most by these changes,” she said. “Food security has a direct impact on learning.”
The state’s Agency of Education recently released its annual snapshot of school performance. The agency looks at test scores for each school in the state and provides an early look at how they are performing in a number of categories.
In the OVUU district those numbers don’t look exceptional, but Collins cautioned that the data is very preliminary and incomplete, a fact that the agency’s website confirms, saying that more data will be available at a later date.
Still, Collins said, “Some of the numbers are not great. We have made significant investments in providing emotional and social supports for students, adding a math teacher so math is taught every day not every other day, and focusing heavily on ensuring early literacy is strong.”
The supervisory union as a whole is categorized as ‘approaching’ performance goals in reading and math, but ‘not meeting’ standards in science. Those grades are an improvement over last year in math, but not in reading.
At Otter Valley High School, students are approaching the standards for reading, but not meeting them in math and science. However, the performance change shows students are excelling in reading and math from the last time the state made its report.
In fact, all of the elementary schools, with the exception of Leicester, are approaching standards in those subjects and exceling or improving in the year-to-year change.
Leicester is not meeting goals in reading or math and shows declining performance changes in both categories. Collins attributes those numbers to the poverty density at the school.
This is a topic that Collins is passionate about, making the connection between food security and educational performance. Collins explained it is easy to see how students who are worried about where their next meal is coming from may have trouble concentrating on math, science or English problems.
That also shows up in the ranking the district received on the equity index, which compares how historically marginalized students performed in comparison with students who live in homes above the poverty line. None of the schools in the district are meeting current goals in the equity index.
“These tests should not be used to rate a school, but yet they are,” Collins said. “We teach kids then test them; we don’t teach them to the test. The equity issue is much more concerning.”
The equity issue is one that the board has been working on changing.
“Sixty percent of the students at Leicester are at or below the poverty level,” Collins said. “Because it is smaller it hasn’t had access to traditional supports that other schools have had.”
The OVUU board has built money into the budget to provide for a guidance counselor at Leicester and an academic interventionist began working with the students last year. Collins hopes that will begin to turn those numbers around soon.
“The ‘historically marginalized students’ category combines many groups, such as free and reduced lunch program students, English as a second language students and special education students,” she said. “The largest portion of those students for us is the free and reduced lunch program and those students are not progressing as much as other students.”
Collins said there are many factors that effect the achievement level for students, even as early as when they enter kindergarten. She compares it to a race where some kids get to start at mile zero and some kids are forced to start at mile negative 10.
“If both of those students progress at the same rate each year,” Collins said, “the disadvantaged student will never reach the finish line.” She added that this trend is not unusual; in fact, it is mirrored nationwide.
EARLY EDUCATION IS KEY
Teachers try to do what they can to accelerate learning early.
“Studies show that preschool programs that provide kids with access to a language-rich early environment do better in school,” she said, adding that Vermont’s universal pre-K increases access to language-rich programs for kids.
“However, it doesn’t always reach those it’s intended to help,” Collins said. “Families who don’t have transportation or work two jobs don’t have the ability to get kids to a 10-hour per week pre-K program.”
RNESU has provided a program at Whiting that has successfully mitigated some of those problems by subsidizing pre-K with daycare in one setting. The district was looking to expand the program to Barstow and Lothrop this year, but were unable to work out a deal with a provider, as of yet.
Collins hopes that helping more kids get into a pre-K program along with the other steps the district has taken will turn around the scores in the near future.
“We are committed to looking at this, changing this trend and getting students prepared,” Collins said. “We do a great job with most students — the valedictorian from Otter Valley is going to Notre Dame — but that’s not all the students.”
“We also recognize that college is not the end all for all the kids,” she added. “For many of our students, farms and family businesses are the goal and we want to make sure all of the kids have the skills needed to contribute to society.”