RGV school districts rank high on statewide meal study

McALLEN— Rio Grande Valley districts were featured in a study of how many of its most disadvantaged students take advantage of free school meals

Rio Grande City, Weslaco, McAllen, Donna, Los Fresnos and Sharyland school districts made the top 10 list of districts in which most of its economically disadvantaged students take advantage of free school meals.

For this study, Children At Risk, a Houston- based non-profit organization, takes a look at districts with a minimum 10,000 students at which at least 60 percent of students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“This is the second time we’ve done this and part of the reason for doing this is that we receive a lot of funds in Texas from the federal government to feed hungry children,” said Bob Sanborn, president and chief executive officer at Children At Risk. “We know that a child who eats well and who eats regularly is going to have academic success.”

The organization weighs breakfast and lunch participation more, but part of the score also considers whether a supper is provided and/or an afterschool snack. This is an effort to see what districts are going beyond the required meals to ensure these children don’t go hungry, he explained.

“Many schools and many school districts aren’t doing everything possible to make sure that kids are getting the food that they need,” Sanborn said. “When we rank, what we are doing is saying ‘These are the districts that are really the best examples in our state in terms of really making sure that we maximize what’s happening for our kids.’”

Rio Grande City school district’s demographics, for example, consist of 79.6 percent low-income students. The district ranked second place in the entire state for its food program with 94.4 percent of its students participating in lunch and 93.5 in breakfast. The district also offers supper and afterschool snacks.

Weslaco school district ranked third, with 81.7 percent low-income students, 90.3 percent participating on lunch and 86.9 on breakfast. The district also offers supper and afterschool snacks.

“They are doing everything possible to make sure that kids are able to eat and do well and that food doesn’t become an obstacle to academic success,” Sanborn said.

After ranking districts this way the first time, Sanborn said they noticed districts using the rankings to persuade school boards to not only continue but sometimes increase the opportunities for students.

This year they noticed more school districts offering the supper program, he said. They can also use other districts as an example of what can be done with available funds, he added.

“Five years ago in the state of Texas no one was serving supper in the schools, but I think because of this and because people understand that we have working families in Texas, we are able to push that a little bit more,” Sanborn said.

Not all districts are ranking high in this area, however. La Joya school district for example ranked 32nd with 93.8 percent economically disadvantaged students, 78.9 percent participating in lunch and 63.6 percent in breakfast. The district offers an after school snack but no supper.

Edinburg also scored lower with 85.2 percent of economically disadvantaged students, 81.5 percent lunch participation and 58.1 percent breakfast participation. The district also offers afterschool snacks but no supper.

Another area in which they have yet to see much change, Sanborn added, is in charter school rankings. These schools tend to rank low on meal participation across the state, he said.

IDEA Public Schools, for example, reported having 88.6 percent of economically disadvantaged students, 74.7 percent lunch participation, and 66 percent breakfast participation. But they do offer both supper and afterschool snacks.

Ranking 14 across the state, IDEA was one of the best ranking charter schools.

“IDEA schools are probably better than most, but as a rule we saw many charter schools were not doing a good job,” he said. “I think it comes down to that bureaucracy and making choices of where they are going to put these resources.”

In their official report, the organization is for now only focusing on publishing top ranking districts, he said, as a way to focus on the positives and on those that can be used as an example of best practices. But as they continue to rank school districts, they might one day start including lowest ranking to call attention to those as well, he said.

For now, he added, the Valley should be proud of having six school districts being used as an example of best practices.

“The Valley is a place that really cherishes its families, cherishes its children,” he said. “The superintendents and nutrition directors in the Valley are pulling out all the stops to make sure children are well taken care of.”