If the current trend continues, within the next few years half of Sequim students will qualify for free or reduced lunches.
As of Dec. 20, 2011, 46 percent of students at five schools, or 1,296 of 2,834 students, qualified for the discount.
Numbers have exponentially increased since 2007 when 32 percent of students qualified (see box, Page A-4).
Superintendent Bill Bentley said Sequim has seen a shift in its demographics in recent years.
“It’s a tough economy,” Bentley said, “We’re mirroring the state and national level.”
Rates for free and reduced lunches are determined on a case-by-case basis by district staff.
The income requirement to qualify for free lunches isn’t provided to the public to prevent abuse of the program, Bentley said.
A regular lunch is $2.10 and 40 cents for reduced lunch students. Students receiving either free or reduced lunch rates are offered free breakfasts.
Parents and guardians must apply through the district office for the discount. Those who qualify for food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families automatically qualify. Foster children qualify, too.
“Bottom line, we don’t want any kid going through our lines being hungry,” Bentley said. “It’s likely that for some, these would be the only of-value meals they are getting. Without this, some kids might not be eating.”
Laurie Campen, director of food services through Sodexo, said students use the program more in younger grades.
She said last June, 90 percent of qualifying elementary students took advantage of the free/reduced programs. In Sequim Middle School, 80 percent used the program, 70 percent at Sequim High School and about half at Sequim Community School.
Bentley said they’ve had a positive relationship with Sodexo.
“We keep the program self-sufficient. A lot of school districts don’t have that luxury,” he said. “Visit any of our lunchrooms and the kids have a lot of healthy options.”
Campen said all of the schools have a salad bar with fresh fruits and vegetables, and several entrees are made from scratch including grilled cheese sandwiches, soups and spaghetti.
“We’re consistently looking at more whole wheat/grain foods,” she said.
At the middle and high schools, pizza is made from scratch daily and stir-fry twice a month. Desserts are offered once a week at all levels and chocolate milk is fat-free and white milk is 1 percent.
Despite the offerings, some parents are reluctant to sign up.
Brian Lewis, the schools’ business manager, said some families now are feeling the effects of the economy and are starting to apply for free and reduced lunches.
“We hold information deeply confidential,” Lewis said, “And you can’t tell who uses it in the lunch line.”
One impact of more students going on free and reduced lunches, Lewis said, is the district receives more Title I funding. However, he added, it’s unfortunate that so many families are struggling.
Bentley said traditionally the lower the number of students on free and reduced lunch, the higher the performance data on assessments.
“One of our biggest concerns and goals for the district is closing the gap between resourced and under-resourced students,” he said.
The district seems to be trying a number of strategies to bridge that gap.
Vince Riccobene, director of instruction, said current methods include the following:
• Creating opportunities to learn, such as Opportunity to Excel, an after-school, twice-a-week support program for third- through 12th-graders.
• A systemic learning plan, including a district improvement plan and building improvement plans that work cohesively
• Professional development Mondays, with teachers receiving ongoing support from professional development coordinators in each school.
Riccobene said math is an area of concern districtwide for both resourced and under-resourced students, so they’ve targeted it for improvement.
“That’s a nationwide trend and not exclusive to Sequim,” he said. “No one in the state is saying we’ve figured out the math problem.”
Sequim schools are trying to develop the idea of a culture of success, he said.
Two years ago, the district started Opportunity to Excel. Participation from teachers is voluntary with transportation provided for students and overtime compensation for teachers. With state cuts, Bentley said funding the program is going to get tougher because it’s an additional cost to the district with no state support for it.
This year, the middle school sees up to 150 students participating each week in Opportunity to Excel.
“Teachers are stepping up to take advantage of this time with students,” said middle school principal Brian Jones.
When the students are “more connected, their attendance, attitudes and scores improve,” Jones added.
Jones said the school tries to offer additional supplemental programs, such as athletics, which have a large turnout, financial assistance for pay-to-play, school supplies and physical education uniforms.
Patra Boots, Helen Haller Elementary principal, said another way the district is bridging the gap is through developing understanding among staff.
“We’re training staff on where students are coming from,” she said. “We have some kids worrying about being evicted and those types of things.”
In the past two years, teachers received professional development training on “the Culture of Poverty.”
Jones said the high number of free and reduced lunch students is a definite indicator of the awful economy.
“It’s situational poverty,” Jones said. “Both parents might be employed, but one lost a job, and they are struggling to make mortgage payments. It takes two incomes to raise a family.”
To apply for free and reduced lunch discounts, contact the Sequim School District, 503 N. Sequim Ave., at 582-3260, or at each school’s office.