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Title 1 aid missing its targets
High schools, because of students' stigma about free or reduced lunches, undercount poverty rates.
By TOM MARSHALL
Published July 17, 2007
[Times photo: Ken Helle]
Edward Fields hugs Santa Claus, Tony Zaccari, at Chiaramonte Elementary School in 2004. Santa Claus went to Chiaramonte Elementary to hand out presents. The presents were donated by neighboring Interbay-Glover YMCA. Chiaramonte is a title 1 school, more than 50 percent free lunches, and has received parties from the Y's community outreach program for years.
BROOKSVILLE - There's never been much question that Hernando High is a low-income school.
It draws students from some of the poorest neighborhoods in the county, according to federal census data. Its "feeder" elementary schools top the list of those receiving federal aid under Title 1, the nation's main source of antipoverty money for school improvement. And its dropout rate is 30 percent higher than its peer high schools.
But don't look for Hernando High on the county's list of 10 schools that received around $300,000 each in Title 1 assistance last year.
The reason? High school students don't like cafeteria food.
For years, most school districts have used the free or reduced lunch rate - the number of children who qualify for meal assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture - as a handy measurement of eligibility for Title 1 assistance.
But it's not the only way to determine eligibility and overreliance on it can mean that some schools like Hernando High undercount their poverty rates and miss out on needed aid.
Officials say middle schoolers are slightly less likely to sign up for free lunch than elementary students, and high school students are much less likely. They're embarrassed, or they like to eat lunch off campus when they get old enough, or they skip lunch altogether.
"I don't think they even apply for free and reduced lunch because the kids don't want to eat in the cafeteria," said Diane Dannemiller, the district's coordinator of federal programs.
District officials agree that Hernando High's free lunch rate is artificially low. While Brooksville, Moton and Eastside elementary schools measure the highest rates of poverty in the district, at 63 to 65 percent, the rate drops to 55 percent at Parrott Middle School and just 34 percent at Hernando High.
And there's no evidence their families suddenly get richer when children reach high school. There are more families with children on welfare in the 34601 ZIP code than in any other neighborhood in the county, according to the state Department of Children and Families.
"When you look at Hernando High, it's pretty clear: three elementary schools, one middle, and they're all Title 1," said student services director James Knight.
And while it has never taken advantage of them, the district could use other methods - including using census and attendance zones - to declare schools or whole attendance zones eligible for Title 1 assistance, said Paul Weckstein, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Law and Education.
While districts have traditionally spent the bulk of their Title 1 funds in earlier grades, he said, that's changing nationally as high schools struggle with drop-out rates and the rigors of the federal No Child Left Behind law.
"The same kinds of things that elementary schools need in terms of high quality and engaging, individualized education is needed in high school as well," Weckstein said. "Obviously you have kids who are even further behind."
What could Title 1 mean for Hernando High? Aside from the $300,000 per year in extra funding, it could allow principal Betty Harper to do something she's talked about for months: develop a new ninth-grade program to focus on that age group and decrease the school's dropout rate, which was 6.5 percent in 2006.
Harper initially said she didn't think her school qualified for Title 1 funds, based on its free lunch numbers. When she learned of the other methods for qualifying, she said her school could use the extra help.
"I certainly could," she said, expressing particular interest in developing the ninth grade center and hiring Title 1 liaisons to boost parental involvement. "The students want to be more independent in high school, and parents sometimes don't know what to do."
Title 1 funds can be targeted toward needy students or used for schoolwide programs, as long as there's a poverty rate of at least 50 percent. They can also be used to hire extra tutors and family liaison workers, or take measures to retain existing teachers.
At Pine Grove Elementary, which started the year with a 48-percent free lunch rate and finished at 51 percent, every teacher with perfect attendance gets a $1,000 salary bonus from Title 1 funds, said principal Dave Dannemiller.
Receiving Title 1 funds exposes a school to federal sanctions under No Child Left Behind, particularly after five years of failing to make adequate improvement.
It could also bring $1.5-million to Hernando or other high schools over the next five years to tackle dropout issues, though it would not necessarily increase the county's overall Title 1 grant.
Superintendent Wayne Alexander said the threat of federal sanctions could help to explain why the district hasn't pursued Title 1 funding for older students.
But he said the idea was worth exploring, particularly for students who are retained and encounter trouble later in high school.
"If it's a pot of money available for the entire district, how do we go about spreading those resources?" Alexander said.