JEFFERSON — There are some families for whom the Jefferson schools’ minimal course fees present a significant hardship, but the district has many resources in place to assist those having trouble paying them.
At the request of school board members, Jefferson High School principal Steve Dinkel, Pupil Services Director Kathy Volk and other members of the administrative team recently pulled together a thorough review on how these cases are handled and the resources available to students in need.
Volk presented the report and answered questions at Wednesday’s school board meeting, satisfying members that there were several layers of protections in place to assure that all students had access to educational courses, materials, and experiences.
Jefferson High School offers 184 total courses, not counting online or off-site courses administered by Plato or the JEDI (Jefferson and Eastern Dane Interactive Network) virtual classes program.
She said one of the courses with fees at the high school level is driver’s education, which is actually administered and run by Cooperative Educational Services Agency #2, with rates set by CESA 2.
Courses for which the local district does set fees include art classes, $15 per class; Technology and Engineering classes, including metals, woods, STEM, electronics and graphics offerings, $20 per class; automotive classes, $20 per class; foods classes, $15 per class; and certain science classes such as AP Biology, AP Chemistry, AP Physics 1 and 2, Anatomy, and Biotechnology, $15 per class.
There are fees for students participating in band, as well. Band students in seventh grade on up who use school instruments including the baritone, tuba, French horn, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, oboe and bassoon pay an annual instrument-usage fee of $50 per year.
Band students in sixth grade on up who are making use of school-owned percussion instruments (which pretty much includes everyone in percussion), pay an annual percussion usage fee of $25 per year.
In addition, high school band members are on the hook for a uniform cleaning fee of $10 per year.
Volk explained that these courses all entail consumables used by students. They either eat items made in class, take items home, or cause significant wear-and-tear to school-owned equipment, as with the musical instruments.
There are a number of processes in place to assist families who have trouble paying, she reported.
Fees are waived automatically for families in certain situations, including free- and reduced-price lunch recipients and homeless youth as defined and provided for through the statewide McKinney Vento regulations.
In addition, parents whose families are in need can appeal to their school principal(s) or directly to pupil services for waivers based on their individual students.
The district also reaches out to families they believe might need help based on teachers’ and other staff members’ background knowledge of the students.
Volk said she believes the district does a really good job of accommodating those families that school officials now are in financial straits. However, due to the continuing stigma of economic need, there always are some who slip through the cracks.
“Historically, some students and families will not disclose their living situations due to this stigma,” she said.
However, staff members have been trained to watch out for signs that a child might be homeless or experiencing economic hardship. Not just classroom teachers, but everyone from food service workers to custodians is alerted to “red flags” that might indicate a student needs help — wearing dirty clothes and having a disheveled appearance, for example.
“Oftentimes, fees are then waived retroactively and we avert concerns in the future,” Volk said.
In certain cases, the school district works out a payment plan with families experiencing temporary hardship, taking into account the specifics of their situation.
“We have usually started at 10 percent of the debt over a period of months,” Volk said.
In recent years, the district has expanded the ways it reaches out to families to alleviate these kinds of hardships and assure that everyone has an equal access to all aspects of their education.
The district’s online enrollment system now includes a question that asks families whether they are experiencing financial hardship to the point they would have trouble paying school fees. Those who check that box during enrollment are contacted before the school year even begins and offered resources which can help put those students on a more even footing with their peers.
“We make personal contact with them and ask ‘What do you need?’” Volk said.
These situations actually occur throughout the year as the district becomes aware that a certain family is struggling.
“Today, I was just on the phone with three people to help out one of our 4-year-olds in Head Start and their mom,” Volk told the board.
Asked to elucidate how common of a problem it is in the district for families to be unable to afford course fees, school officials related that the high school had billed a total of $16,340 in course fees in 2019-20. Of that amount, $12,155 has been paid, $3,815 remains outstanding and $370 has been waived, Volk said.
Those numbers don’t reveal the full picture, however, Volk said.
She noted that the district does have a number of donors in the wings who have taken it upon themselves to ease the situation for struggling families and to assure their students get what they need.
“We’ve got the funds there and we have really good community support,” she said.
If the district becomes aware of a particular need, such as a student unable to pay for band shoes or participate in the Homecoming dance or a field trip, it reaches out to those donors and many times that debt is just wiped out.
The same goes for “delinquent” student lunch accounts, or even the fees to take Advanced Placement tests. For if the student can do the work, why should they be disadvantaged due to a family situation out of their control?
These numbers don’t even appear in the statistics since those fees are marked as paid, Volk said.