Currently under the program, districts are allocated funds based on the number of their students that are eligible for free school meals. These funds can be used to support students who are considered “at risk.” While the primary goal of the program is to make sure these students meet third-grade reading benchmarks and graduate from high school, the dollars can also support other activities proven to benefit at-risk students, like decreasing class sizes to give teachers more individual time with students who need it, providing adult high school completion programs to increase overall graduation rates, hiring support staff to assist students and investing in new curriculum geared towards helping students with additional challenges.
As of now, the program is underfunded. There are currently several different proposals to increase funding going through the Michigan Legislature, but even the most generous of those would still short the program by $78 million. When it comes to supporting students in need, we need more, not less.
The need for more funding is best illustrated in the differences in graduation rates between students who are economically disadvantaged and those that are not. The 2016 graduation rate for students from families with low incomes was 67% while the rate for all other students was 88%. Additionally, there are disparities by income levels in 2016 tests for third-grade reading proficiency: nearly 69% of students whose families have low incomes are not proficient, but for students not from families with low incomes, there are almost 38% not proficient. At-risk students experience additional difficulties and barriers in attaining the same level of academic success as their peers, and the state is not doing enough to rectify this apparent imbalance.
There are multiple factors that can contribute to this difference and explain the need for additional support. Parents who live below the poverty line are less likely to be able to be involved in their child’s academic career, because many work untraditional hours or more than one job, for example, which can present challenges to being more involved. The additional stress that comes from living in poverty or moving multiple times can deteriorate the physical and mental health of students in the long-term, and their ability to focus and learn at school in the short-term. Schools need to be able to assist all students to counteract these issues; the fact that the At-Risk program can provide funding to specifically target students who need the most support is what makes it so beneficial.
The proposed increases in state budget funding to the At-Risk program are important to help those who need it most. The financial status of a student’s parents should not have such a large effect on that student’s success in school, and increasing funding for the At-Risk program is an effective way to change that.
— Eric Staats