At Thornton Elementary’s recent back-to-school night, the computer lab was so mobbed that Principal Betsy Miller had to quickly open three nearby classrooms so parents could access more than a dozen additional computers.

At an event often characterized by teacher talks and classroom visits, why the rush on desktop computers?

The rush came at the urging of school staff as part of a new push to get more families to fill out Free/Reduced Price Meal applications. As cafeteria staff, volunteers and translators stood by to help, Miller took in what, to her, was a beautiful scene.

“It was packed all night long,” she said. “It was awesome.”

The effort at Thornton, where 80 percent of students qualified for free or discounted meals last year, is not unusual. Many school districts undertake special efforts—from school bus ads to outreach events at community agencies–to get the meal applications filled out by eligible families. Often the push starts well before the first day of school.

Parents at Thornton Elementary filled the computer lab during the school's recent back-to-school night.
Parents at Thornton Elementary filled the computer lab during the school’s recent back-to-school night.

To be sure, these efforts aim to ease the financial burden of struggling families by extending meal benefits and other fee waivers.

But they’re also intended to accurately measure the level of need in schools and ensure schools get their fair share of millions in federal Title 1 dollars and other at-risk funding, especially at a time when some efforts to expand low-income students’ access to food may be having the unintended consequence of encouraging parents to pass on the paperwork.

“The more people you get to apply, the more funding you get that benefits the kids,” said Naomi Steenson, the director of nutrition services and Before and After School Enrichment in Adams 12.

Moving toward universal meals

With Colorado’s “Breakfast After the Bell” law, as well as district policies that increasingly emphasize universal meals for all students in high-poverty schools, getting the Free/Reduced forms completed can be a tricky task for district staff.

“A parent mentally thinks, ‘Well, I’m at a school where it’s free. I don’t have to apply,” said Steenson.

Part of her job is to combat that misperception, which she believes led to lower free-and-reduced percentages at several of the 13 district schools that offered universal breakfast and lunch last year. To get her message out, she asks her staff to fill out the form themselves so they can vouch for how easy it is. This year, she’s also emphasized the online version of the application form, commissioning school bus ads and suggesting principals offer open computer lab time so parents can fill it out.

For principals like Miller, it’s an easy sell. She believes last year’s free-and-reduced rate at Thornton doesn’t capture the true need among the school’s students and is hoping her efforts this year will boost that percentage.

“We’ve just been more diligent this year,” she said.

While Thornton students already enjoy universal free breakfast and lunch, Miller likes to remind parents that filling out the application could exempt them from the $45 student fee, and possibly other activity fees if they have older children in the district.

Aside from the financial impact on individual families, there’s also the larger school budget question. In addition to free full-day kindergarten, Thornton’s Title 1 funds pay for a bilingual family liaison and other instructional supports.

“When parents don’t complete the application it can impact our federal funding,” said Miller.

Free-and-reduced rates can also affect certain kinds of state funding as well as grant funding.

Administrators in other districts are also acutely aware of the potential funding at stake if parents fail to fill out the free-and-reduced forms. In Pueblo City Schools, where a number of schools offer universal free meals, Nutrition Services Director said she was forced to eliminate that model at two schools a couple years ago because too few parents continued to submit the applications.

“We basically say if we don’t get all the apps in we’ll go back to a paid system,” she said. “We do hold out, not necessarily the carrot, but the stick.”

In Adams 14, where universal meals are available in every school, the annual application process is routine for many parents, said Jim Rowan, the district’s director of nutrition services. Still, he’s found that principals push harder to get those forms turned in if their schools teeter close to the Title 1 funding cut-off.

“They are more focused on ensuring that number is higher,” he said. “It’s amazing how funding motivates people.”

Behind the numbers

On a Friday morning in early August, Lola Campos, a free and reduced meal specialist with Boulder Valley School District, met some of the parents behind her district’s statistics at a local food bank, Community Food Share in Louisville. It was part of a three-day outreach effort to connect parents with staff from Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts.

Family Filling out FAR application
Lola Campos worked with a parent to fill out an application for free and reduced-price school meals.

“School districts are trying to get more involved, which is a great idea because these people who have one need usually have several needs,” said Carol Cortez-Sagor, the food bank’s direct distribution coordinator.

Campos sat in a conference room along with staff from district preschool and Medicaid outreach programs, greeting parents and helping them fill out the free-and-reduced application. One mother followed Campos’ soft-spoken instructions as her elementary-age daughter spun around in a black swivel chair next to her, her toddler stood on tippy-toes repeating “Mama,” and her oldest leaned against the table watching intently.

“Your signature here,” instructed Campos. “And that will be it.”

In the end, the process took only about six or seven minutes. While parents are not required to provide proof of income, Campos noted that 3 percent of applications will be selected for further inspection in October and those parents will have to provide documentation of income then.

Aside from expediting the application review process for school districts, which are flooded with free-and-reduced forms during the early weeks of school, outreach efforts like the one Campos attended help parents avoid paperwork hassles later and calm hesitation about passing on sensitive personal information.

Shelly Allen, director of nutrition and warehouse services for St. Vrain Valley, said, “It’s a great opportunity for us to have one-on-one contact with parents.”

Without that personal connection, procrastination or confusion can inadvertently make life harder for families.

“What happens is mom just keeps sending them to school and we keep feeding them until we send letter home that their application from last year expired,” said Allen. “They run up these terrible bills.”

In addition to sending employees to Community Food Share every August, Allen ensures free-and-reduced applications are available at local churches, the housing office and homeless center. She also prints her name and number on school menus so parents can call her directly.

Things were different when she first arrived in the district, she said. There were no visits to the food bank or other concerted efforts to reach eligible families.

“It wasn’t quite as important here at that time,” she said. “We didn’t do it and we struggled.”