Meal plan sign-up carries a bonus

City schools offer prizes to increase participation

September 27, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

With millions of dollars in federal and state aid at stake, Baltimore schools are offering students and their families prizes and movie passes if they just fill out a form.

The form is an application for free or reduced-price meals at school cafeterias.

Not everyone who applies will have a family income low enough to qualify, but the school system is betting that at least a portion of the 26,000 students who don't fill out the forms each year will meet the standard.

Last year about 69 percent of the 100,000 students in the school system were enrolled in the meals program.

Increasing the number of students who enroll could translate into millions of dollars in aid because educators use the program as a measure of poverty.

That helps to determine how much money the district is reimbursed for its telecommunications costs, including computer wiring and phone bills.

It also is used to determine the amount of money city schools receive for programs to reduce class size, give additional training to teachers and provide after-school and summer programs for children.

On Monday, the school system will offer unusual incentives for students and their parents to fill out an application for subsidized meals.

High school students who apply - even if they turn out to be ineligible - will get a free movie pass.

Their names will be entered into a drawing to win prizes such as computers, a 27-inch-screen television and gift certificates at a large retailer.

Middle and high school students historically have had low participation rates because getting a free or reduced-price lunch stigmatized them as being poor.

Kathleen B. Wilson, director of Food and Nutrition Services in the school system, said they're attempting to install an electronic PIN system that would protect the privacy of recipients.

That system has been installed in two high schools.

The school district also is offering principals an incentive: If they can persuade 90 percent of their students to fill out applications, their schools will receive $2,500.

The school district's chief operating officer, Mark Smolarz, said the cost of the incentive program may be more than $100,000, but he is looking for businesses willing to donate some of the prizes.

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