Chew on this

Published July 19, 2007

Chew on this.

Hernando High School may be missing out on about $300,000 in federal funding because many of the students who are eligible don't sign up for free or reduced-price lunches.

That fact is hard to swallow, considering that the School Board, like just about every other taxing entity in Florida, is struggling to find ways to provide more services with less money. Hernando High principal Betty Harper says $300,000 a year would allow her to implement an antidropout program she fancies. It also could be used, as it is in other schools, to hire tutors, or reward dedicated teachers.

But to qualify for the money, according to a report published Tuesday and written by my colleague Tom Marshall, more than 50 percent of Hernando High's students must participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Because that is the measure the district has chosen to qualify for the federal government's poverty-fighting Title 1 funds, Hernando High does not make the cut. Only 34 percent of the school's enrollment now takes advantage of the assistance.

And it is not because students don't qualify based on their families' incomes. They were signed up when they were in elementary school at Moton, Brooksville or Eastside, and at Parrot Middle School, all four of which received the $300,000 in federal aid.

It seems that when teenagers get to high school, they don't like to eat in the school cafeteria. Some school officials speculate that accepting a free lunch is too much of a stigma for students to stomach.

Although one can understand how students might be embarrassed if their friends were insensitive enough to converse about how much money their parents make, it appears most of the eligible students simply prefer not eating, bringing their lunch, or eating off-campus.

Here's a suggestion that might kill two birds with one stone: Forbid students from leaving the campus at lunchtime.

That might sufficiently boost the numbers of students who partake of the Title 1 entitlement so that Hernando High gets its $300,000 a year. At the same time, it might cut down on a problem that some district administrators and teachers have complained about for years: students leaving the campus and returning under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Certainly, the majority of students who hop in cars and zip down to the fast-food emporiums for lunch are not stoners or drunks. But some are, and anyone who doubts that probably is in denial about the prevalence of substance abuse among teenagers.

I'm not picking on Hernando High. The county's other three public high schools are just as vulnerable to students taking sly advantage of unsupervised time off campus.

Need another reason to keep kids on campus at lunch? Try safety.

Schools may not be as safe as everyone would like, but they are far less risky than our roads.

This idea won't be popular with students, and some parents will think it an intrusion on their children's freedom.

But administrators and School Board members should not use that as an excuse. They should weigh those objections against the potential of extra funds to keep children in school and out of trouble.

Jeff Webb can be reached at webb@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6123.