As school year ends, food program sites expand

"School's out for summer. School's out forever," sang rocker Alice Cooper in his heavy metal tribute to the last day of school.

For 65,000 Clark County School District students who used to attend year-round elementary schools, this summer might really seem endless. They're finally getting a three-month vacation instead of intermittent track breaks, which lasted just a few weeks.

"Personally, I like the whole summer off," said Luke Corbett, who on Thursday completed fifth-grade at Vanderburg Elementary School, a former year-round campus in Henderson. "It's freedom."

But while many families are celebrating the return of the three-month vacation, others are worried about the impact the prolonged break will have on the county's poorer students, who depend on schools for weekday breakfasts and lunches. Almost half of the county's public school students qualify for free and reduced lunches.

"The need is bigger than ever now," said Brian Burton, president and chief executive officer of Three Square food bank. "We've been anticipating this disruption for two years now. We've been making plans with the Nevada Department of Education and the Clark County School District."

The district ended the year-round schedules at 76 schools and synced them with the traditional nine-month campuses for the year that ended Thursday because of declining enrollment, the expense and parent complaints.

Corbett never liked the year-round calendar. This summer, the 11-year-old said he and his brother, Dylan, 9, are going to visit their grandmother in Idaho, who lives by a lake.

Vanderburg Assistant Principal Robin Lott-Lederman is looking forward to her first summer off in 15 years.

"I'm going to sleep. I'm going to clean out my house, read, travel, visit my family on the East Coast and just do nothing if I feel like it," she said.

Lott-Lederman described the mood before Vanderburg's first summer break in a long time as "exuberant."

Stephanie Gulotta, who had one child at a nine-month high school and another at a year-round elementary school in 2009-10, said, "There was only a two-week window we could go on vacation. Now the kids are the same schedule. I prefer it."

But extending the school year also extended the safety net for children in poverty who depend on schools for essential services. Nearly half of the county's public schools students qualify for the federally subsidized lunch program. Eligibility is based on federal poverty guidelines, which, for a household of four in 2011-12, means an annual income of $22,350 or less.

As a contractor for the Summer Food Service Program, Three Square feeds youngsters when school is out, preparing such "goodies" as turkey nuggets, banana bread, pizza, fresh fruits and vegetables, Burton said.

The program is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture at no cost to the state, said Karen Vogel, food service consultant for the Nevada Department of Education.

The challenge, however, is getting more families to take advantage of the food service program. Last summer, the program served 203,039 meals in Clark County, but that number is small considering 151,412 local school children qualify for free and reduced lunches, Vogel said.

Organizers blame a lack of access and community awareness.

"We don't have the marketing budget of McDonald's," Burton said. "The resources are very lean. We stretch them as far as we can."

For this summer, Three Square has doubled its lunch sites from 13 to 26. It also is working with other summer food service providers, such as the Culinary Training Academy and the district, to make sure all parts of the county are covered.

School counselors have provided information to families so they can locate the most convenient summer lunch sites, which are typically at day camps, community recreation centers and churches.

Many schools offering summer tutoring also will be offering breakfast and lunch. Many of these schools were formerly on the year-round schedule, said Byron Green, the district's director of instruction.

Green said, "The staff really stepped forward because they knew there was going to be a big need."

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@reviewjournal .com or 702-374-7917.