Hearing that Rockford district 205 has a poverty problem probably won't surprise you. The district reports a high rate, as well as non-profit student advocacy groups.
80% is average for a math test but its above average when it comes to the percentage of low-income students in Rockford Public Schools district 205. That's compared to 49% state-wide.
"That is something that we are very concerned about," expressed Voices for Illinois Children President Gaylord Gieseke. "We look at a lot of available data. So we have healthcare metrics, we have education metrics, we have family economic security metrics. We have demographic data."
Local lawmakers share the concern.
"When you hear that from different sources it gives that more credibility so clearly that's an issue," said 34th District Senator Dave Syverson.
But it's an issue that might deserve an asterisk next to it. No doubt the number of low-income families is high, but according to district administrators, 80% is subjective.
Within the district, 80% of students receive free and reduced lunch. Do that many actually qualify for it though?
It's hard to tell. Not only can you turn the application for free or reduced lunch in without proof of your income; the school district can only audit 3% of those forms each year.
Of those 3% the district says 50% won't submit proof by the deadline automatically disqualifying them from the program. And with only 3% of those families being audited, there's no telling how many could be taking advantage of the system. That creates another obstacle for lawmakers as they vouch for the education system.
"We need to have the same definition of poverty that everyone is using and we need to verify those numbers," said Syverson.
When students receive free or reduced lunch, they're also receiving other services. Drivers ed, athletic fees and classroom materials only scratch the surface.
Elementary students receive around $100 worth of waived fees with the program, middle schoolers around $175. High school students though have more than $700 in school fees waived when they receive free or reduced lunch. That's per student, each year.
"The more we're spending on people that don't need it, that means that those who truly need the help aren't getting the help that they need," said Syverson.
The Voices for Illinois Children study also highlights alarming news for state funding.
"Rockford for example this year has 10-million dollars less going into the Rockford school system which translates into a per pupil spending drop of 400 dollars per pupil," said Gieseke.
The school district has no knowledge of that $10 million figure. If it's accurate, districts all across Illinois will be hit hard resulting in cutbacks like early childhood education.
"An example of that, that's really high on our list is state funded preschool," said Gieseke.
"Making sure all of our kids have a pre-school education is really important to us, in fact we found with internal studies that our children who start out in Rockford public school pre-school and then get our pre-k through 12 education have a 10 percent higher graduation rate than students that don't get that pre-school from us," said Dan Woestman, Director of Accountability at RPS205.
That's why "Voices" goes to work in Springfield, offering numbers and findings that lawmakers can't ignore.
"Make their policy priorities those things that will help children grow up to be productive member of our state," said Gieseke.
For those families that do need the assistance there are things actively going on in Springfield to help.
The Lincoln Promise pilot is in the Senate. If adopted, Rockford businesses and the school district would foot the bill for students to attend RVC, encouraging them to invest back into the community.
"When you have communities like Rockford that have high poverty levels, these are the types of programs that make a difference, I think this is a game changer. It's good for the community and it's good for the student because it will help them improve their lives and provide a skilled workforce for businesses in the area," said Senator Steve Stadelman.
Allison Free, a first year teacher at McIntosh says beyond classroom basics, teachers there spend time getting students excited about middle and high school.
"We all have to adapt and just learn the basic needs of our kids."
In 2012, the Illinois Interactive Report Card from the state board of education had McIntosh at 95% for low-income percentage.
Free says, that creates an obstacle for teachers but gives them a challenge to work through.
"Just focusing on one project is a struggle enough so just kind of adjusting everything that you thought you were going to do is kind of different because it's a different lifestyle."
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