Lunch program a path to funding; Federal project aids schools with students qualified for meal plans


Every day, Principal Laura D'Anna takes to the intercom airwaves of Patterson High School with all of the melodramatic inflection she can muster. "Guess what is coming?" she asks. "Pizza Party!"

Everyone connected with the school from parents to staff members will munch pizza, get a free T-shirt and listen to a disc jockey if poor students can get their parents to fill out an application for free and reduced-price school lunches.

What D'Anna is really keen on has nothing to do with mozzarella, tomatoes and dough, but rather technology that will give her students access to the Internet.

It's a scheme that has high school principals across Baltimore using the lure of a pizza party and free tickets to a football game to try to garner millions of dollars in aid for their schools through a federal program called Education rate (E-rate). The program reimburses schools with high numbers of poor children for a variety of telecommunications costs from telephone bills to Internet wiring.

Principals believe that parents are slow to register their children for free or reduced-price meals because they don't understand the benefits to their school or their children are embarrassed to be labeled poor.

Last year, about 50 percent of Patterson's 2,200 students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, and thus were considered poor by federal standards. But using the incentives, D'Anna has increased that to nearly 70 percent in the past two months. The result? Her school will probably have a good chance at being wired for the Internet.

D'Anna and her colleagues consider the stakes high. "If we are going to prepare students for the 21st century they have to be online," she said. "If they aren't going to get it here, where are they are going to get it?"

While the connection between computers and poverty might seem obscure, Congress has decided that poor students, less likely to have computers at home, should not be left behind in the technology boom. So if a school can prove that 70 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, it can get up to 80 percent of the cost of installing wiring in the schools reimbursed.

Less than 20 percent of city schools are wired for Internet access and school officials estimate it would cost $78 million to finish wiring the remaining 141 schools. The school system says about $21 million of that cost could be reimbursed if parents cooperated and filled out the forms.

Last year, 68 percent of the city's students qualified for free or reduced-price meals at school, but school officials believe more qualify, but haven't applied.

Even parents of children who don't intend to use a free or reduced lunch card should fill in the applications because their child's school could benefit, school officials say. Besides getting the E-rate discounts, schools that have used the free lunch program to prove they have a high poverty rate can qualify for extra dollars from federal, state and private sources, said Kathy Christie, director of the information clearinghouse for the Education Commission of the States.

Christie said she had never heard of a school system offering the kind of promotions going on in Baltimore's schools, but added, "I can understand the push because the dollars will help those kids learn at those schools."

For instance, federal Title I funds, which are used for a variety of programs from teacher training to after-school tutoring, are provided only to schools with a large percentage of poor children. But private foundations and nonprofit groups often look closely at the percentage of students who have qualified for free and reduced priced meals when they are deciding where to give their money, Christie said.

So this week, Baltimore school officials are offering incentives to high schools, where registration for subsidized lunches is lowest, the officials believe, because students feel stigmatized by carrying the lunch cards. Leonard Smackum, director of food and nutrition services for the city schools, said the district is in the process of creating a lunch room pay system that doesn't identify the school's poor students.

Part of the problem in counting poor children, school officials say, is the reduction in families on welfare in the past six years. In 1996, 35,386 children in the city were living in households on welfare, but that figure had dropped to 27,505 in August, said Smackum.

The city can automatically register children for the free lunch program if they are on the welfare rolls.

A child in a family of four with an annual income of $21,710, for instance, would get a free lunch. A child in a family of four with an income of no more than $30,895 would get a reduced-price lunch.

Smackum said the incentives were developed in the hopes that whatever money the school system would spend to sign up children would be more than returned to the system in dollars from other sources. So far none of the city's schools has met the 70 percent goal, he said. The school with the highest percentage will be given free tickets to the Morgan State University homecoming game at Ravens Stadium on Oct. 16.

Any parent who wants an application can get it through the child's school or by calling 410-396-8764.

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