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Free school lunch numbers soar



This fall, Sequim schools have the highest numbers of students seeking free and reduced-price lunches in at least 10 years.

Sequim’s schools have seen the number of such students jump from 25 percent in 1999 to 33 percent in 2008 — and to 41 percent districtwide in 2009.

School enrollments meanwhile have decreased.

“The result (of more students on free/ reduced lunches) is that students will begin to struggle,” said Bill Bentley, superintendent of Sequim schools. He said financial struggles often hamper parents’ involvement in their children’s academic progress.

“This is clearly an indicator of the financial constraints in our community,” he said.

Strain on staff too
Helen Haller Elementary principal Vince Riccobene said the numbers are significant because they pose additional issues for staff to meet students’ learning and social needs.

“Children aren’t going to learn without a good meal,” he said.

“Many of these families already have dramatic challenges.”

Most alarming to Bentley is the number of students receiving free lunches.

“We’re talking about real poverty-level incomes to qualify for free (lunches),” he said.

While a student’s family income must be at or below a certain dollar figure to qualify for reduced-price lunches, that income must be even less to receive free lunches.

Riccobene said Helen Haller historically had been between 40-45 percent of students receiving free/reduced lunches and this is the first time in his tenure it’s risen above 45 percent.

“You can just feel it in the building,” he said about the presence of poverty in the school.

“That’s a lot of families in this town who are in poverty. Driving around, you’d never know it.”

Lunch rates

Incomes that qualify for free/reduced lunches are based on a sliding scale.

For example a household of three — one where any three people share living expenses and bring in less than $33,874 before taxes — may qualify for free/reduced lunches.

A reduced-rate lunch costs $2 for a high school student, $1.95 for a middle school student and $1.80 for a K-5 student.

Breakfast at reduced rates costs $1.20 for a high school student, $1.15 for a middle school student and $1.05 for K-5 student.

Unemployment exhausted
One district staffer said she’s seen a number of applications come in for free/reduced meals that show the only income for a student’s parent, parents or guardians is unemployment insurance.
Several of those applicants are almost out of income.

Bentley encouraged parents to look into the free/reduced program to see if they qualify. Names of students in the program are kept confidential, he said.

“All kids need to be supported, regardless of income,” he said.

One day last week, 500 students at Sequim Middle School ate school lunches. Bentley said the number of students eating breakfast at the school is rising as well.

Title I benefits
Both Greywolf and Helen Haller receive extra help from the Federal Title I program designed to help students achieve proficiency measured by state academic achievement standards.

Individual schools may be assigned Title I status and receive federal dollars if the student population’s free/reduced lunch status crests 40 percent.

Helen Haller and Greywolf both top that: at 47 percent at Haller, 42 percent at Greywolf as of Oct. 1.

At levels below 40 percent, schools may receive funds to help only those students receiving free/reduced lunches.

Above 40 percent, a school’s officials may use those dollars to fund educators and materials schoolwide rather than just for specific students or student groups.

Riccobene said this opens up more flexibility to serve all children.

Provides tutoring
“Historically, we’ve been meeting the learning needs of our low-income students,” Riccobene said.
Title I helps with more tutoring, more small-group studies and more individual instruction, Bentley said.

In school year 2006-2007, Title I served more than 17 million children nationwide, about 60 percent of whom were in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The number of elementary school students receiving reduced fare for lunches always will be higher, Bentley said, because parents and guardians of elementary school students are more willing to report their economic status.

“Parents can be more engaged at the younger level,” Bentley said.

Basic Food program
Students and families also may apply for the Washington Basic Food Program, a nutrition program also known as food stamps. Basic Food helps eligible people obtain a nutritious diet by providing an electronic benefits card to buy food at participating grocery stores.

Washington Basic Food also qualifies people for low-cost local phone service through another state program.

Basic Food uses a sliding scale to determine eligibility based on household income and size.

Locally, the Sequim Food Bank. 144 W. Alder St., Sequim, is open 9 a.m.-noon Monday, Friday and Saturday.

Volunteers can be reached at 683-1205 or 461-6038.

Information about other food and family assistance programs can be accessed by dialing 2-1-1.

Reach Michael Dashiell at miked@sequimgazette.com, and Matthew Nash at mnash@sequimgazette.com.

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