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District works on free/reduced lunch issues

BY HOLLY HINES | APRIL 14, 2010 7:30 AM

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Several students at Kirkwood Elementary in Coralville agreed they love playing board games such as “Riddle Maze” and coloring during the Kirkwood Kicks after-school program.

On Tuesday, before splitting up to work on group projects and homework, the group of roughly 60 students gathered in the Kirkwood gymnasium for a snack of cereal and apple juice.

The Iowa City School District helps fund the Kirkwood Kicks program, in part to help meet the needs of students from lower-income families who receive free and reduced-price lunches from the district, said Bart Mason, the Kirkwood principal.

District officials and community members are looking at ways to remedy the disparity in concentrations of students from lower-income families. They’re aiming to ensure free and reduced-price lunch recipients make up fewer than 50 percent of each school’s population.

To be eligible for assistance in the 2009-10 school year, a child in a four-person family must come from a household with an annual income of roughly $40,700 or less, according to the district’s website.

Many officials and community members agree redrawing schools’ boundary lines in redistricting won’t meet the 50 percent goal by itself, so they’re turning to different solutions.

Assistant Superintendent Jim Behle said schools with high numbers of students receiving free or reduced-lunch prices also often have high numbers of students with learning difficulties, who sometimes require additional resources.

Peter Hlebowitsh, the head of the University of Iowa teaching and learning department, wrote in an e-mail that he thinks tracking free and reduced lunch numbers is the best way to identify lower-income students who might need additional support.

Mason, who served on the redistricting committee, said district officials should look at using several methods in tandem to address concerns about free and reduced lunch.

“Redistricting is one piece of a larger puzzle,” he said.

Lower-income families are concentrated in some parts of the city, and it can be difficult to address free and reduced lunch concerns by simply busing the students.

Mason suggested hiring additional teachers or using a paired-school concept — in which officials would combine schools that have high numbers of free and reduced lunch students with schools that have lower numbers.

April Armstrong — whose children attend Weber Elementary and Northwest Junior High — said she would also like to see the district work with city officials to examine zoning changes that could help break up high concentrations of poverty.

Armstrong, who also served on the redistricting committee, said she’s concerned that free and reduced lunch status is often equated with students who are struggling academically. But she agreed the statistics can sometimes be a good indicator.

Community members said some programs the district already has in place, such as Kirkwood Kicks, have been successful in helping lower-income students achieve success.

Kaela Kramer, a coordinator for the program, said she finds it rewarding to watch the students’ confidence grow, she said.

“I have a lot of respect for their perseverance,” she said.

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