Sacramento-area schools make big push to identify low-income students

Video: Big push for school lunch sign-ups

Sacramento City Unified School District offers schools cash incentives if families fill out free lunch applications.
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Sacramento City Unified School District offers schools cash incentives if families fill out free lunch applications.

As the state directs more money to low-income students, some Sacramento-area schools are pushing harder to solicit family applications for subsidized meals, including campuses in affluent neighborhoods where a fraction of students have qualified in the past.

The incentives to verify more low-income families are big. For every percentage-point increase in eligible students, the Sacramento City Unified School District would receive approximately $1.1 million in additional state funds, said spokesman Gabe Ross. He said even a small increase of 2 to 3 percentage points would have a huge revenue impact.

To spur participation, the city district is offering its campuses up to $10,000 each if they raise application rates to 90 percent of enrollment. At last count, about 64 percent of students’ families in the district had filled out the free-lunch application and qualified.

$1.1 million Amount the Sacramento City Unified School District can receive for each percentage point increase in low-income students.

The Folsom Cordova Unified School District is not offering incentives, but it plans to promote its campaign with phone calls and fliers sent home to parents, along with newsletters on its website.

“We’re doing a districtwide focus,” said Folsom Cordova spokesman Daniel Thigpen. “But in Folsom, where we have lower rates of poverty (than in neighboring Rancho Cordova), we suspect there may be families not applying who may be income-eligible.”

While that means more money for schools, it also helps many families reduce expenses for student meals, he said.

For years, school districts have routinely asked families to fill out applications to identify those whose children would benefit from free or lower-cost meals. The process is confidential so that students who don’t pay are indistinguishable from those who pay the full price to eat. The federal government covers those costs through its National School Lunch Program.

Since 2013, the state’s funding formula has directed more money to students who are low-income, foster youths or English learners. Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers asserted that the state had to spend more classroom money on those students to compensate for their lack of education resources at home. The state relies on the income-based meal applications to help determine which districts qualify for low-income education funding.

The more individual students identified in one or more such categories, the higher the funding. Districts with a particularly high share of disadvantaged students, 55 percent, are eligible to receive even more money under the theory that schools with predominantly low-income students and English learners face acute challenges.

We’re doing a districtwide focus. But in Folsom, where we have lower rates of poverty, we suspect there may be families not applying who may be income-eligible.

Folsom Cordova Unified School District spokesman Daniel Thigpen

Schools in the Sacramento City Unified district are being urged to have 90 percent of their families return the applications for free lunches or, in the case of some high-poverty schools, income-verification forms. While not all families are expected to qualify, Ross said the plan is to consistently raise the volume of applications so that more families receive aid and the district leaves no state funding on the table year after year.

The district’s incentives apply to all 76 of its campuses, including those where few students have qualified based on income in the past. Crocker/Riverside Elementary School, where a district-low 11 percent of students qualified last school year, has made a strong push this month to have families return their forms.

“Help Crocker earn $7,500 by filling out the free lunch form,” the Land Park school’s PTA website tells parents. “If 90 percent of our Crocker parents return this form, the district will give the school $7,500.”

The idea is that even at Crocker, it’s unknown how many more families might qualify, Ross said.

Sacramento City Unified is providing different incentives based largely on enrollment size. Christina Allison, site instruction coordinator at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Oak Park, said her school expects to receive $5,000 for participating in the program.

The additional money, she said, will “really benefit our schools and our community.” Oak Ridge last year had the highest percentage of qualified families in the district at 96 percent, according to state data.

Thigpen said the increased state funds already help the Folsom Cordova district pay for teachers that work with struggling students, academic coaches, marriage and family therapists, and English language development teachers. They also include support for teachers for literacy and math, efforts to foster a positive school climate, project and field trip learning efforts, and musical instruments for low-income students.

Qualification for subsidized meals

This list shows the percentage of students eligible for subsidized meals in Sacramento County districts, based on household income in 2014-15.

  • Twin Rivers Unified School District, 82 percent
  • Sacramento City Unified School District, 64 percent
  • Elk Grove Unified School District, 55 percent
  • San Juan Unified School District, 50 percent
  • Folsom Cordova Unified School District, 34 percent

Source: California Department of Education