More help with lunchesPublished 10:04am Tuesday, October 9, 2012
It’s no secret more students are going through Austin Public Schools these days, as Austin’s student population is expected to increase over the next six years. Yet a higher percentage of Austin students are also receiving free and reduced lunch.
Though this year’s student enrollment numbers haven’t been released, about 2,489 students, or about 55 percent of Austin’s total student population, were on free and reduced lunch programs last school year. That’s an increase from the 53.7 percent free and reduced lunch count in 2010-2011 and 51 percent of students in 2009-2010.
“Just as the economy ebbs and flows, the percentage of students we see ebbs and flows,” said John Alberts, Austin’s educational services director.
Last year’s free and reduced lunch count for Austin is higher than the 37 percent count in Minnesota, and is larger than the 46 percent free and reduced lunch count in Albert Lea and the 39 percent free and reduced lunch count in Owatonna, which reportedly had about 300 more students than Austin last school year.
In addition, almost one in five Austin residents are living at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s three-year estimates, with 28 percent of Austin residents under age 18 living at or below the poverty line. About 13 percent of Albert Lea residents, and about 16 percent of A.L. residents under 18, live in poverty, while in Owatonna about 9 percent of residents, with 13 percent of residents under 18, live in poverty.
While lower income students don’t necessarily do worse in school, education experts agree students from lower income backgrounds are less likely to have as many educational opportunities or seek postsecondary education. Austin’s free and reduced lunch students did better on the math portion of the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment than others across the state, with 45 percent of Austin’s free and reduced lunch students making proficiency in math this year compared to 44 percent of Minnesota’s free and reduced lunch students. Austin’s lower income students fared worse in reading than the state average, with Austin coming in at about 52 percent of free and reduced lunch students making proficiency compared to the state’s 59 percent average. In science, 26 percent of Austin’s free and reduced lunch students made proficiency, lower than the 30 percent average statewide.
While Austin offers several programs and targeted services for students from lower-income homes, district officials can’t single out one subgroup among the rest when planning curriculum. Yet several district initiatives are designed to reach across demographics in the classroom, according to Alberts.
That includes the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, an eight-step teaching method originally designed for students who don’t speak English fluently that focuses on letting them know what they’re expected to learn and creating shared terms and vocabulary. Students will then know how to describe the lessons they’re learning regardless of their opportunities outside of school. SIOP is used across the district, having been implemented about a year ago.
“It doesn’t make any assumptions about what the students necessarily know going in,” Alberts said.