One in three students sitting in class at RBHS qualifies for free or reduced lunch. In order to be eligible for these meals, a family’s income depends on how many people live off the gross pay for the household.
In Missouri, the maximum amount for a household size of one person is $15,782, or $304 a week. For a group of eight people, the maximum income is $55,904, $1,060 a week according to the policy outlined by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Junior Terrence Smith, who requested to be anonymous and is written using a fake name, is one of three people in his family, who he said brings in around $35,000, qualifying him for free lunch.
“Growing up, I didn’t know that not everyone gets free lunches,” Smith said. “When people were like, ‘I’m hungry,’ [I was] like, ‘Well, why don’t you just go get a lunch?’ and they [were] like, ‘I can’t afford it right now’ [because] they don’t have any money on them. I didn’t know you have to pay for lunch. So I’m like, ‘Oh, I get my lunch for free,’ and I’ve been told before that that’s because I’m poor. It’s like one, don’t say that to people and two, wow, yikes. I didn’t know I was poor, sorry.”
Students who quality for free and reduced lunches at RBHS remain confidential. There is no line separating lunches for kids able to pay versus students who meet the income requirement.
While lunches might remain anonymous, extra-curricular activities are much more demanding. Many clubs and teams do not have fee waivers that families can qualify for by filling out an application, and in smaller groups students may feel more pressure to hide their financial situations.. For Smith, the most economically-straining activity he participates in is show choir. Despite the cost of the optional activity, Smith said he chooses to take part in the group because it is his passion.
“At show choir competitions the food is usually cheap, but the costumes are what’s on the upper-end,” Smith said. “At the end of the year we have to pay for our shoes and stuff. We don’t really have a choice how much our shoes cost so they can be anywhere from $50 to $70, and it’s just like, ‘These are your shoes.’ You don’t have a choice. You don’t have to keep them, but you still have to buy them.”
While Smith said show choir sometimes covers the cost of the outfits, the fee waivers are usually for the jackets. If a member cannot afford to buy the jacket, he or she can talk to choir director Mike Pierson for financial aid. The eligibility for fee waivers is usually the same as for free and reduced lunch.
Despite the low-income qualifications, there are still some aspects of public school that are not covered by the equitable values of government provided education. Senior Savannah Schnabel believes these costly parts of RBHS are not directly through the school, but more through extra-curricular activities like her Professions in Healthcare class that is through the school or volleyball team.
“In my Professions in Healthcare class, we have to be CPR certified, have a background check and also have tests so that we can participate as Student Nursing Assistants until we get our [Certified Nursing Assistant],” Schnabel said. “We got our syllabus and found out that we had to pay a total of $64 for these necessities. Without these payments, we couldn’t continue the course. The payment was due within a week, and I paid for it because it was my class, and it was last minute notice.”
The Professions in Healthcare class syllabus outlines a $30 required fee for CNA certification and pin and an $11 fee for family registry and background check. In the first few months of school, Schnabel said she estimates she paid around $250 altogether. This includes fees such as club dues, which can be either a fee for being in the activity or t-shirts. Organizations at RBHS are mainly student-run with teacher sponsors; thus the students choose what to make members pay for with light regulation from bookkeeper Donna Piecko.
RBHS Director of Counseling Betsy Jones, however, said club leaders and sponsors should not allow club dues or should at least provide fee waivers for students who have lower incomes. Aside from this, Jones believes there are many ways RBHS tries to stay equitable.
“We do everything we can to support student’s needs,” Jones said. “We have a Bruin Care Account that is funded by donations and also supported by student council. [Missouri State High School Activities Association] rules do affect what we can do for student athletes.”
While RBHS does what’s in its power to help students with costs, sometimes paying for food and activities are completely up to the families. Schnabel and her sister, Olivia, often have to pay for things themselves, and Schnabel describes her financial situation as fairly one-sided.
“My mom is a single parent raising two high school seniors and just barely making enough money. She lives paycheck to paycheck and sometimes even has us kids pay for things when it’s really tight,” Schnabel said. “My dad on the other hand is paid more, so he usually pays for things when needed; however, my dad is very picky about money. If there’s a time when Olivia and I need food before practice, we end up paying for it, which is hard because we only make so much money.”
Both Schnabel and her sister have part-time jobs to help their parents out when it comes to paying for school and extracurriculars. Likewise, Smith took on a job to help pay for the cost of show choir and other school charges. Last year, RBHS fined Smith $700 and withheld his schedule until he paid the fee. While he said $200 of this was a mistake and got refunded, the remainder of the money came out of pocket.
“The first time I joined show choir I didn’t know that you had to pay for stuff that you didn’t keep, so I bought my corset which was like $20, but at the end of the year I almost couldn’t get my schedule because I had like a $700 fine because I didn’t pay it,” Smith said. “[RBHS fined me] for show choir and for other stuff that I didn’t pay for because I didn’t know that I was supposed to pay for it. Rock Bridge doesn’t tell you that you have to pay for things. They just give you this receipt, and it’s like ‘Oh.’”
The remainder of Smith fee was because of show choir clothing charges on items such as replacement Spanx, pantyhoes and corsets. The cost of these items, however, came with an opportunity to fundraise. Jones said fundraising works by clubs depositing funds in their accounts for use, and RBHS will help with fee waivers if they know the financial need. Other than this, Jones said she wishes there were other ways RBHS was more equitable.
“[I would like] more sporting opportunities for students who do not play competitive ball year-round for our sports that are so competitive,” Jones said. “[Also,] an activity bus so students could stay for co-curriculars.”
In terms of fundraising, Smith would like the money to be distributed fairly. The choir department portions out the money from events like the RBHS ad book or show choir garage sale to each member equally. Smith believes there are some people in the group who need it more than others, and fundraising should be more equitable, not equal.
“[Spreading the money equally is] not the best idea because there are people who are on the upper-end of financial stability and there are some people who have to walk a couple miles to get here early in the morning so that they can even be in show choir because their parents have jobs that they have to be at,” Smith said. “You should give it to the people who actually need it.”
Because of the fluctuation in show choir in terms of financial status, Smith said he feels nervous constantly. With many people in show choir being on the upper-end on financial status and some being lower on the scale, Smith said he questions whether or not choir should even allow him to do the activity that he loves.
“It makes me kind of sad. It makes me feel like I’m not as much as other people,” Smith said. “I feel like [other people] have a better way of life than me, even though that’s probably not true it just feels like that because that’s the way that things are set up.”