In the last three years, Old Saybrook Public Schools has seen a 11.1 percent increase in students receiving free or reduced school lunch. Putting aside the issue of declining enrollments in the district, 227 students qualified for subsidized lunch in 2018-19, compared to just 100 students in 2015-16.
“The reasons for the increase are hard to assess because the information is so highly confidential. I do not know the names of the students on free and reduced lunch, so [I] rarely become aware of who is receiving this benefit,” said Superintendent Jan Perruccio. “I will say that there seems to be a general trend that some students moving into Connecticut are in families that are looking for new opportunities.”
That growth trend is part of the reasoning behind a pilot program for introducing universal preschool into public schools in the district.
“This year 49 percent of our population is defined as ‘at risk’ by the state,” said Heston Sutman, principal of Goodwin Elementary. “The sooner we get our hands on them the more quickly we can get them ready for kindergarten”
The reason for this increase, however, may be less about new families moving into the district and more about a change at the state level in how eligibility for free and reduced meals is determined.
According to the State Department of Education, beginning in the 2018-19 Connecticut public schools began using Medicaid enrollment, in addition to household income –currently 185 percent of the federal poverty line — to determine which students qualified for free and reduced lunch.
“This project will seek to enroll children who are potentially eligible for free and reduced-price school meals, but are not currently directly certified to receive meals through other programs,” said Peter Yazbak, communications director for the State Department of Education. “That should account for the increase you see in this chart of students in Old Saybrook who are eligible for free and reduced priced meals.”
The program is just one of several across the nation under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 using Medicaid data — also known as HUSKY in Connecticut — to directly register children for subsidized school meals.
Statewide, the number of students receiving subsidized meals increased by 5.4 percent, less than half of the increase seen in Old Saybrook.
Semi-rural and suburban towns in the region similarly saw a jump in the number of students eligible for free and reduced meals after Medicaid data factored into determinations — an increase of 10.8 percent in Westbrook and Region 4, a 10.5 percent increase in Lyme-Old Lyme, a 7.3 percent increase in East Lyme, and 9.3 percent increase in Waterford.
In comparison, in New London — where more than 80 percent of the student population received free and reduced lunch already — student eligibility changed only slightly from previous enrollments.
As Perruccio explained it, the “net has been cast to capture these numbers more accurately, so part of this number is a correction in the process of reporting.”