There is at least one good reason why Fort Mill residents shouldn’t worry about the number of students receiving free or reduced price lunches at Riverview Elementary School: Parents, students and administrators at Riverview appear to love the school.
Fort Mill’s population has been growing steadily for years, and that has resulted in the need for more schools. The district will open two new elementary schools – Doby’s Bridge and Tega Cay – for the next school year.
That means attendance lines must change, which inevitably invites controversy and complaints from some parents. But the new attendance plan put together by consultant Dale Holden, who has helped redraw lines in the past, has produced few objections from the community – except regarding Riverview Elementary.
Riverview currently has the highest number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches in the district at 44.3 percent, which is 19 percentage points higher than any other school in the district. Under the proposed attendance plan, that number would rise to almost 51 percent, which would lead the next school by 22.1 percentage points.
Some critics have said those numbers are too high, that too many free-and-reduced-lunch students are concentrated in Riverview. They say the district should have made a more concerted effort to balance the percentages among the schools.
Some also worry that the parents of students receiving free and reduced lunches are less likely to be fully involved in school activities and their children’s educations. Presumably, according to the critics, with a high percentage of such students at Riverview, teachers would find their jobs more difficult and the school would receive less support from parents.
Again, though, Riverview families have stepped up to say they love their school. Ironically, many of the complaints have come from residents in other attendance zones.
Schools with high numbers of children on the free and reduced lunch plan often have lower achievement scores than schools with fewer such students. The corollary is easy to explain; students from low-income families are less likely to excel academically that their peers for a variety of reasons.
That’s the case to some degree at Riverview. The school had the lowest overall average number of students meeting or exceeding standards in all test subjects across all grades in the district. But, significantly, Riverview still scored well above the state average.
The numbers also are relative. For example, while Riverview would have the highest percentage of free-and-reduced-lunch students in the district at 51 percent under the proposed attendance lines, Rock Hill’s entire district averages 52 percent of students on free or reduced lunches, meaning that several schools have higher percentages than that.
Those drawing the new attendance zones also said they put a high priority on maintaining so-called “neighborhood schools,” where children who attend live close by. That, we think, is a better approach than skewing zones to change the relatively low number of students receiving free or reduced lunches at one school.
We don’t buy the notion that even a high percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch plan automatically means that parents will be less attentive or less involved in their children’s schools. Nor do we believe that students on the plan have a significant effect on the performance of students who aren’t eating free or reduced lunches.
Much more important factors in a school’s performance include good teachers and administrators, good discipline, parental cooperation with teachers and enthusiasm on the part of students and their parents. Those attributes easily trump any effect of the number of students on the lunch plan.
If Fort Mill residents are truly worried about Riverview’s performance, those are the things they should focus on, not whether students are paying for their lunches or not.