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If needy parents don’t fill out forms for free meals, schools lose out on a lot more than subsidized green beans.

When 10-year-old daughter Zara unloads her backpack during the first few days of the school year at her Petworth home, Aminta Cabrera knows to pluck one particular form from the mess of art projects and crumpled homework assignments that come tumbling out.

Cabrera has trained herself to keep a lookout for the precious form each and every school year. Without it, her daughter couldn’t get her free lunches at John Quincy Adams Elementary School. A housekeeper two days a week, Cabrera says she and her husband—a waiter at the National Press Club—need every bit of help they can get. “I know if I don’t fill it out, they don’t give my daughter lunch,” she adds.

Most years, Cabrera’s fellow parents at Adams Elementary feel a similar sense of urgency. A 300-student elementary school set in Adams Morgan, the school caters to a population of largely black, Hispanic, and immigrant families, many of them struggling to support large families on low salaries, according to parent Sergio Luna. Most years, a large majority of Adams parents fill out forms showing that their children qualify for free or reduced-price lunches—eligibility that’s determined by family size and income. (A family of four with a yearly income below $30,895 qualifies for reduced-price meals, according to federal guidelines.)

In the fall of 1997, 92.5 percent of Adams’ families qualified for the cheaper meals, according to D.C. Public School (DCPS) figures. “At Adams, almost everyone is low-income,” says Cabrera.

But to judge from last year’s rate, you’d think the Adams curriculum included tutorials on hot Internet stock options in addition to the trio of R’s. Despite years of high participation in the subsidized lunch program, the school reported that at the start of the ’98-’99 school year, just 46 percent of students qualified for the free or reduced-price lunches—half of what it had reported the year before.

Neighbor and schools advocate Kathleen Wills says the change has nothing to do with a local economic boom. “A change in demographics might account for a 2 to 3 percent change,” says Wills, who has started a petition among parents to demand a recount. “[But] it’s just impossible that a whole group of parents would be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”

Instead, Luna and Cabrera say that many Adams parents—especially an increasing number of recent immigrants—can’t read many of the forms teachers send home. DCPS spokesperson Devonya Smith says that forms for free lunches are available in five languages, but Luna says that some Adams parents can’t read and write their own language and often are skeptical of requests for too much information. Unless they’re really encouraged to return forms, many of them don’t. And last year’s drastic decrease coincided with the arrival of a new principal, Allan Lovell, who some parents say wasn’t good about following up with them.

Lovell says he encouraged parents to complete forms, but that many of them didn’t return the papers until after the October deadline. A cafeteria manager collecting the forms didn’t transfer them to the school system until December, says Lovell, and DCPS officials told the principal that it was too late to change the figures. “I have to take full responsibility for that,” says Lovell. “As principal of the school, the responsibility falls in my domain.”

You can chalk the mistake up to a brand-new boss who was just warming up, but you may still think that someone in DCPS’s main offices could have asked why a school where a majority of students gobbled up free lunches in the past now had fewer than half of its students feeding on government-subsidized food.

“To me, someone was asleep at the wheel not to notice the disparity,” says Wills.

And incorrect information about free-lunch eligibility has effects far beyond the cafeteria. It is the basic standard by which the system assesses how many of a school’s students are needy. DCPS doles out federal Title 1 funds—monies used at Adams for after-school tutoring sessions and teacher aides—on the basis of the number of students who qualified for the subsidized meals during the previous year. The new Weighted Student Formula (WSF), which determines each school’s general budget, also uses the rate to shape a school’s bottom line. According to the WSF, schools get more than $300 for every student who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals.

Schools spokesperson Smith calls the Adams dropoff “an unfortunate situation.” She says DCPS has a “system of checks and balances” to oversee the school-lunch program and verify applicants. Mitzi Beach, assistant superintendent of categorical programs, adds that principals are expected to keep track of incoming forms, compare the figures with previous years’, and then coordinate with assistant superintendents to come up with accurate information. But the system

is not foolproof, Beach says, especially if schools don’t actively encourage parents to return the forms.

Smith says there’s only so much that the system can do to help parents help their kids. “We can’t make people do things, but we encourage them to do things. There are reminders,” says Smith. “We are going to make sure people are looking more closely. They’re going to start looking at numbers and following through.”

Thanks to last year’s subsidized-lunch figures, Adams this year gets less than half the Title 1 funds it received last year—a loss of about $67,000 in federal money, according to Jim Ruff, assistant director of categorical programs for DCPS. And the school system used the October 1999 count of eligible students to determine this year’s WSF funding, says Jonathan Travers, DCPS deputy budget director—meaning the school lost out on another $50,000.

It’s not as if Adams can spare the cash, say parents. With a $1.7 million budget, parents say, school administrators have trouble paying staff and maintaining the school’s aging building, constructed in 1938. Last year, a citizens group gave the school $1,000 to beef up the library with plenty of new books, says Wills. But this year, because of the shortage of funds, Adams higher-ups had to fire an art teacher and the librarian who was looking after the new materials, say Cabrera and Luna. Now, unless a teacher’s there to let students in, the library doors remain locked.

“We really have a big problem at Adams,” says Cabrera.

Adams isn’t the only school to miss out on free lunches and all the financial trimmings that go along with them. Sheila Carr, president of the Eastern High School PTA, says parents had big plans for the high school both this year and next—based partly on the $400,000 they expected to receive through the WSF. About 60 percent of students usually sign up for the free and reduced-price lunch program, she says. This fall, however, Eastern was struggling to initiate a new principal, and the new leadership meant that only 25 percent of students turned in forms and qualified for the cheaper lunches by the October deadline.

Carr estimates that the school lost out on more than $200,000 in local funds because of the low turnout.

“Now the computers we wanted, we can’t order,” says Carr. “The conferences we wanted to send teachers to, they can’t go, unless they pay for it themselves….Eastern sure can’t afford to lose money.”

Carr—also co-chair of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools—says high schools take an even bigger hit when DCPS dishes out funds on the basis of the lunch figures. Elementary and junior high schools that feed into Eastern High School, set in Ward 6, typically have high rates of students who qualify for subsidized meals. But the number drops off drastically once those kids get to high school, where image-conscious teenagers are hesitant to take forms home to parents and return them to the schools to get the cheaper lunches, says Carr. “The higher it goes, the more the kids get a stigma to it,” she says. “It’s a whole little

culture thing.”

According to Mary Levy, budget analyst and counsel for Parents United, current DCPS budget figures show that about a quarter of all schools reported drastically lower numbers of students receiving free lunches this year than last. “And there’s no correlation with race, area of school, principal being new,” says Levy. “It’s all over.”

Of course, schools also experience considerable upsurges from year to year, says Levy. The inconsistencies leave Levy and others wondering just how reliable the numbers really are. “It’s one of those things I look at and say, ‘Gee, I wonder, does anyone check in on this stuff?’” she says.

Auditors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture had the same question when they reviewed the District’s lunch program in 1998. According to the August 1998 audit report, the District’s lunch program, run by the DCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services, was rife with problems, and the system offered little in the way of oversight. Vendors did not comply with contracts but were paid anyway, according to the audit. School-lunch funds were used to pay salaries of employees who didn’t work for the program, and schools received funds for more meals than they had eligible students. The study recommended that the school system pay back about $4.2 million in funds that had been intended to pay for school-lunch expenses but instead had gone to pay utility bills and special ed expenses.

DCPS’s Beach says the school system has improved the operation of the lunch program since the audit. In October, it split the division in half and parceled out oversight responsibilities to two separate offices to make the setup more efficient, says Beach.

And this year, says Beach, DCPS officials have decided to extend the deadline for the lunch program until December, so that schools will have more time to encourage parents to turn in forms. The December count will be used as the basis for future federal and local funding. “We had a number of schools this year that did not do their outreach as well as I would have liked,” says Beach. “Obviously, we want as many children to benefit as possible. Adams was not the only school that [reported] a lower number.”

Schools activists say that even an extended deadline won’t help with parents who don’t realize that the forms are used for more than determining free lunches.

“I think that’s a problem of the system not educating parents on what this is about,” says DCPS parent and schools advocate Nerissa Phillips. “The system needs to look for other ways to do these things, to get the information they want.”

Some parents and activists suggest that unless and until DCPS can guarantee that the lunch counts are accurate from year to year, they shouldn’t be used to determine important school funding. “This is real money,” says Delabian Rice-Thurston, executive director of Parents United. “If we want it, maybe we need to say to people, ‘This is something you have to do to enter school.’ We have not tended to do it.” CP