The Counseling and Student Support Services Department (CSSS) at DGS became aware of a gap between seniors who receive free/reduced lunch (FRL) and those who do not. The population of FRL students has increased in our building over the last several years. Fifteen years ago, 5% of our students were FRL. Now, the population is over 30%, which has increased equally across racial and ethnic groups.
During a department meeting at the conclusion of the 2015 school year, we reviewed the Senior Exit Survey, Illinois Youth Survey, intervention statistics, and other pertinent student performance data to identify gaps to address in the upcoming school year. At the beginning of every school year, we, along with our Advisory Council, prioritize identified gaps and form our Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to address identified gaps. The PLC work consists of gathering more in depth data to learn about barriers faced by students, create interventions and monitoring plans, and review perception, process, and outcome data at the end of the school year.
The PLC created to address the identified gap asked the following research question: Is there a gap between the percentage of FRL and Non-FRL students reporting that they have no plans or are undecided about their plans after high school graduation? It was discovered that the percentage of students not receiving free-or-reduced cost lunches who reported being undecided/no plans after high school was 5%, while the percentage of students receiving free-or-reduced cost lunches who reported being undecided/no plans after high school was 15%. There was a 10% gap between the two groups in having post-secondary plans. Students who received FRL were 10% more likely that non-FRL students to be undecided or have no plans after high school.
The PLC created a forum that highlighted an 8-student alumni panel. The alumni on the panel were all students that had been in the FRL program during their senior years and had matriculated to 2 and 4 year colleges/universities. The forum began with each student sharing their personal story of getting to college and how they traversed their financial barriers. The counselors provided a summary of the FAFSA process, and highlighted how students can apply and receive financial assistance. The counselors gave an overview of 3 + 1 programs that afford students the ability to start degree programs at the junior college with guaranteed admission to 4 yr. schools, therefore saving thousands of dollars in tuition costs. Students were also given information on the military, tech schools, and certificate programs at the community college. Soon after the forum, counselors followed up with their assigned FRL seniors who did not attend the forum to learn about their absence and to review the information provided. Counselors continued to meet with their FRL seniors individually to provide support and information, and encourage them to take steps toward creating a post-secondary plan.
Unfortunately, our Closing-the-Gap data indicated that we did not meet our goal of increasing post-secondary planning amongst FRL students by 10%. After our interventions, the gap existing between FRL and non-FRL students having post-secondary plans grew from 10% to 14%. Of important note in this data set is that both FRL and non FRL students increased in being undecided with regards to their post-secondary plans. The percentage of students not receiving FRL who reported being undecided or having no plans after high school grew from 5% to 8%.
Although we were disappointed in not seeing improvement in our Closing-the-Gap goal, we learned even more about the data set that raised additional questions. Overall, it looked as if the Class of 2016 experienced greater uncertainty about post-secondary plans. The fact that this trend impacted the FRL students to a great degree is indicative of other economic indicators that have a similar correlated impact on those experiencing financial hardships.
In conclusion, counselors felt this was a worthwhile endeavor as we learned a great deal about how financial barriers affect students in the FRL program even more significantly than other students. As a result, we are generating a number of other possible interventions to be used in the 2016-17 school year in addition to what we did in 2015-16. These include hosting financial assistance workshops during the school day, getting information to families earlier about our financial aid/college finance programs, and plans to engage with parents/guardians of identified FRL students with greater intensity about the importance of having well-devised post-secondary plans.