Superintendents are the CEOs of their school district. Every decision they make balances student achievement with district financial considerations. This is certainly true with the state’s National School Lunch (NSL), or poverty funds, which districts receive based on the percentage of low-income students they have. This state funding isn’t for lunches though. Federal money is used for school lunches. It’s called “National School Lunch” funds simply because the amount of state NSL funds each school gets is determined by the number of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.
These state funds were designed to improve outcomes for students who, due to poverty, may have more challenges than their peers. When the funds were first established, the need for them was described as early childhood education (pre-K), one-on-one tutoring, and extended learning times such as afterschool programs. Over time, that list has grown. Now there is a list of 22 possible uses of the funds approved by the legislature and another six by the State Board of Education.
At our district, we use the funds for a variety of things, but we have focused on using 81 percent of them for pre-K and tutors. We do this because the research tells us that these are important keys to improving achievement.
It is tempting to shift every possible eligible expense to NSL funding because it has a limited amount of restrictions. This budgetary strategy would free up more of the foundation funding that we get from the state for anything the district needs or wants, including athletics and extracurricular activities. Foundation funding is unrestricted and can be used for any legal purpose decided on by the district. Typically, districts use most of their foundation funding for teacher salaries.
For us, focusing NSL funds on tutoring and pre-K was an easy call. We know that tutoring and pre-K are important to the success of our students, and this was our funding opportunity to expand these services for our students. We were thrilled to see that the Arkansas legislature felt similarly. The 2017 passage of Act 1044 provides matching grants for NSL funds used for these two priorities and one other[JD1] : tutoring, before- and after-school programs, and quality pre-K programs. All three are proven to help reduce learning barriers for kids who grow up in low-income households.
We have undertaken multiple efforts to provide additional opportunities to our most challenged students. We see effective use of NSL funds for tutoring and pre-K as a win-win situation. It improves student achievement, and it’s financially effective because of the matching grant incentive.
Our elementary school letter grade wasn’t as strong as we wished, but our high school letter grade was a “B.” There were 287 schools in the state last year that served grades 10-12 and received a letter-grade rating. Only 33 of those schools (11 percent) of the state’s high schools scored better than we did. We think our tutoring and other student services helped us improve our student outcomes. In an effort to improve outcomes at the elementary level, at South Side, we are now using 100 percent of the NSL match funds for early education. Essentially, we are paying it forward.
We hope this reimbursement continues. We will expand the use of our NSL funds for tutoring and pre-K. In our view, meeting the needs of our lowest income students improves our overall district achievement and makes us more competitive. District-wide outcomes are important, but improving the achievement of every individual student is goal number one.
William Jackson is the superintendent of the Southside School District in Van Buren County.