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April 13, 2013

Federal aid vital to schools, Title I programs

Judy Leitch’s task one morning last month was teaching prefixes.

Judy Leitch’s task one morning last month was teaching prefixes.

The meaning of the word “patient,” for example, flips when you add “im” in front of the word, Leitch told the third-graders arranged in front of her.

Leitch, 60, is a Title I teacher at Kennedy Elementary School in the Wellington School District. “Title I” means the federal government pays her $52,000 salary.

If not for Judy Leitch and dozens of other Title I teachers scattered across Kansas, standardized test scores almost certainly would dip.

“I help kids who are struggling,” said Leitch, who’s been teaching for 25 years. “I see the lower 25 percent of each class.”

Her focus is on reading and math and serving as a backstop of sorts to regular classroom teachers who sometimes struggle to help the stragglers.

“Teachers do the best they can in the classroom,” Leitch said. “And sometimes that’s not easy when you have 20-22 kids.”

Across Sumner County in fiscal 2010, more than $530,000 went to Title I programs. But the federal aid didn’t stop there. Washington sent more than $1.5 million to the county to help pay for school lunches. Fully 928 of the Wellington School District’s 1,600 kids are on the program this year, and Superintendent Rick Weiss is certain that without it, a good number of his students would go hungry.

A fact of life in education circles is that hungry kids aren’t nearly as inclined to focus on learning.

“If students’ nutritional needs aren’t met, that’s going to make it pretty difficult for them to worry about math or reading or anything else,” Weiss said.

In the nearby Oxford School District, Superintendent Mark Whitener said this year’s Title I allotment is paying the salaries of three staff members who are both reading and math specialists.

Without them, “Kids would fall behind,” Whitener said. “If you look at our assessment data over time, we find that when we get kids on grade level, especially before the third grade, they tend to stay on grade level and tend to do well throughout their careers.”

But if they fall behind early in their schooling, those students are at risk to become dropouts “especially as they hit the high school level,” he said.

The federal government sent another $447,000 to Sumner County to help boost students in low-performing schools and $102,000 for the “Rural Education Achievement Program,” a grant program aimed at helping districts get more grants. Head Start, the pre-kindergarten education program, got another $743,000.

There’s also Title 2A money for what Weiss called “teacher improvement.

“If that went away,” he said, “there’d be a greatly reduced number of teachers able to go out and enhance their ability to teach.”

To Weiss, all that money simply adds up to the cost of doing the hard business of educating kids. In the current school year, federal dollars make up $1.3 million of the Wellington District’s $20 million budget.

Many parents don’t realize that the federal government is playing a significant role in the teaching of their kids, said Diane DeBacker, the Kansas education commissioner. If the federal money disappeared, she said, the state couldn’t make it up.

“The federal money we’ve received over the years,” DeBacker said, “benefited kids over and over.”

Back in her classroom, Leitch is using a new tool as she works with her third-graders — a “Promethean board,” which essentially is like a giant, 8-foot computer screen where students can work with words. The kids seem to love it.

The PTA pitched in to buy the board, Leitch said. So did the federal government.

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