Families pay price for hard-to-read aid forms

October 23, 2007|By Marie McCarren

Your child has a hand up to answer the teacher's question, but the teacher calls on Andrew instead. Calls on him to sit down. To pay attention. To stop bothering his neighbor.

Does Andrew have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder? No. Is he a natural-born troublemaker? No. He is hungry. He didn't have breakfast, so he's having a hard time paying attention.

Based on his family's income, Andrew qualifies for free breakfast and lunch at the school. But his mother didn't apply. Why? Maybe she couldn't read the application forms.

Last year, I read the application and FAQ sheet from the Anne Arundel County public schools. I read "verification," "confidentiality" and "reapplication." I saw "receive" and "obtain" when "get" would have said the same thing; "identification" instead of "ID." I pulled the forms off the school system's Web site and ran a quick readability check using Microsoft Word. Overall, the reading level was 10th grade, and some sections came in at 12th grade or above.

What should the reading level be? The National Institutes of Health's Plain Language Coordinating Committee recommends a reading level of fourth to eighth grade for "public information materials and public notices."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that parents typically complete applications for the school lunch program at home without help, and the center calls on schools to make these forms "clear, easy to use, and encouraging." The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service provides an application form and FAQ that schools can use. The reading level of the FAQ sheet is seventh grade. Still, many school systems, such as Anne Arundel's, create their own forms, usually at a higher reading level.

So I shot off a two-page e-mail to our school superintendent, filled with helpful suggestions. You see, I have the annoying zeal of a reformed sinner. Years ago, I wrote summaries of new medical research for people with diabetes. These were supposed to come in at about the eighth-grade level. I'd run a quick check on my pieces, see "Grade 10" (or higher), and rationalize: "Well, they can't expect me to get this science writing down to eighth grade."

Then I volunteered with my local literacy council, went through training and started working with a student. She was a single mother with a toddler. They were in the WIC program. She was bright, but for some reason - slight dyslexia, perhaps - she did not read well. She had a part-time job, and she wanted to learn to read better so she could get a better job. Seeing her struggle with any word that had more than one syllable made me change the way I wrote my articles and books.

It was with her in mind that I wrote to our school system. A month later, I was invited to a meeting and was led to believe we would be addressing the readability of the free lunch forms. But the issue was not discussed.

After a few more months of this runaround, I let it be known that I was preparing to make a statement at a Board of Education meeting, where my comments would become part of the public record. That got some action. A letter that had been written to me months before but addressed to the wrong household finally made its way to me, and I was put in touch with the person who could make changes in the application forms.

And indeed, some changes were made. The 2006 FAQ sheet had a reading level of 10.4. The 2007 FAQ sheet comes in at just above 11th grade. Yes, that's right, it's now more difficult to read.

Your child's class is back from lunch. Andrew didn't have a lunch. If he had told the lunchroom ladies, they would have given him a cheese or jelly sandwich, but he's embarrassed to do this every day. So he mooched some French fries off one kid and half a cheese stick off another.

In his afternoon classes, he can't pay attention. He's still hungry.

Marie McCarren is a medical writer in Arnold whose new book is "The American Diabetes Association Guide to Insulin and Type 2 Diabetes." Her e-mail is diabetes@nomadresearch.com.

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