MIDDLE CLSS IN DECLINE - Changes evident in school lunchrooms

Donelle Pardee Whiting

The State of Illinois reported 40.9 percent of the total student population in 2007 were from low income households, according to the Interactive Illinois Report Card Web site, iirc.niu.edu.

Area schools and the state are doing what they can to help through free and reduced lunches through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program and other programs, an indication the middle class is in retreat.

Children from households that meet federal guidelines, based on income, are eligible for free or reduced-price meal services.

However, Peoria’s District 150 takes the program a step further by participating in the state’s Summer Food Service Program.

According to a press release this summer, Gov. Rod Blagojevich said, “Here in Illinois, we are working together to make sure that no children go hungry this summer while schools are closed.”

Stacy Shangraw, director of communications for District 150, said the summer food program coincided with the district’s summer school schedule.

The program was open to students 18 and younger regardless of income status.

About 67 percent of the total student population in District 150 is considered low income, Shangraw said.

The district helps its low-income students in other ways.

“Book fees are waived,” she said.

In addition, Peoria residents will step up and provide much needed help from donations, health care, dental care and child care.

Whatever the need, residents will find a way to help, Shangraw said, adding, “If it is not there, we find a way to get it.”

District 150 recently had an open house during which book bags filled with school supplies were handed out to needy families.

Parents are encouraged to go through school administrators, counselors or teachers — whoever they are comfortable with — for help or information on available programs, Shangraw said.

East Peoria

EPCHS superintendent Cliff Cobert said the school is in its fourth year of the Team Teacher Experience, now named Raider Academy.

“The program targets at-risk students,” he said, who are identified through entrance exam scores.

Raider Academy supports in-class help through smaller class sizes, team teaching in the core courses and study skill instruction during study hall.

Teacher assistants, who are in contact with teachers, provide structure, tips and insight for study skills.

There is a general correlation among social economic levels and students who have trouble in school, Cobert said.

However, “I can’t say that is the sole cause,” he added.

Parents in the higher economic level can provide outside resources to their students Cobert said.

“We are trying to fill in the gap,” he said, adding, “My hope is it will make a difference and these students develop skills for test taking, self confidence ... there are a lot of issues,” facing students these days.

Washington

 WCHS superintendent Dr. Jim Dunnan said he is not seeing a big change in students participating in the free and reduced lunch program.

Although there has been an increase in affected students, Dunnan said, “It has not been much of a jump.”

In the last three years, from 2005 to 2007, the percentage of students participating in the lunch program went from 6.8 percent to 8.2 percent to 12.2 percent.

The state percentage has held steady during those same years at about 40 percent, he said.

“The percentage goes up a little each year,” Dunnan said, “but with the state of the economy, the trend will continue.”

Chillicothe schools

Illinois Valley Unit District 321 superintendent Dave Kinney said Chillicothe educators are sensitive to the needs of lower income families.

Chillicothe schools, with a total of about 2,100 students for the upcoming school year,  averages between 20 to 25 percent of the student population to be from lower income families.

“There are more in the grade schools than in the high school,” Kinney said, adding there are pockets of poverty in town.

Just as the student population numbers will shift as the students go through the grades, so do the poverty numbers, he said, adding that the district has seen an increase in enrollment.

Kinney said Chillicothe schools are sensitive to all students with programs and activities that help all students be successful.

In addition to continued support of those students who are successful and doing well, the district is starting a mentoring program for middle school and high school students.

The idea, he said, was to help students who need the extra help.

In addition to the free and reduced lunch program, the district will waive textbook fees and will take care of user fees for students who qualify.

In addition, school clubs and organizations will have fundraising events to help with cost of activities so all the student members can participate.

“We try to put students in a position where they can fully benefit from (what the district has to offer) without worry about cost,” Kinney said.

Another change this year, he said, is extending the bus route time in the afternoon for students who would otherwise not have a ride home.

This way, they are able to take advantage of the mentoring program.

Morton schools

With one of the smaller low-income percentages in the area, Morton School District 709 superintendent Roger Filpatrick said Morton does not envision a need for a lot of specialized programing for at-risk students.

Although there has been an increase in the number of low-income students, Filpatrick said it is not a rapid increase.

The district does offer the reduced and free lunch program for those students who qualify as low income.

In addition, the schools will waive book fees for students from low-income families.

Filpatrick said Morton schools will provide tutoring for all at-risk students through Title 1 programs.

Morton students receive additional help with math if needed, he said, and for those needing help with reading there is an additional after-school program.

Filpatrick said the Morton School District uses a federal program, Response to Intervention to help at-risk students in the lower grades.

Last year, RIS was used in the kindergarten through third grades. This year, RIS will target kindergarten through sixth grade students.

Right now, Morton schools are focusing on reading skills.

Filpatrick said students are recommended by teachers, and will receive tutoring during the day in their free period.

“It is more intense,” he said, adding that reading is one of the key areas to their success.