Every Friday from November until the end of the school year, a group of students at Neal Wilkins Early Learning Center in Platteville left school for the weekend with more in their backpacks than they brought to school that morning.
On those school Fridays, 25 to 30 students took a package of such items as bananas, strawberries, cookies, crackers and Pop Tarts home for the weekend.
The snack packages were assembled by members of the Platteville High School National Honor Society Friday mornings and then placed in backpacks Friday afternoons while students were in class.
Neal Wilkins principal ReNah Reuter described the recipients as “kids who the teachers and the social worker have determined might need that kind of support over the weekend,” with parental approval.
Put another way: The students receive school breakfast and lunch during the week, but not on weekends.
“I’d had it in the back of my head for a couple years, but I didn’t have the resources to do it,” said Maureen Vorwald, the PHS NHS advisor. “When the NHS position opened up, this looked like a good community service project for them. It kind of goes beyond doing a car wash, a bake sale — something that’s a little more significant than just a one-and-done fundraiser.”
“The kids who get these snacks really look for them,” said Reuter. “And I think it’s good for the high school students because when they’re here, they notice things they wouldn’t have before. It provides them an opportunity to do something a little more different than before.”
The snacks were funded by a school district account of donations for “snacks [and] milk for the less fortunate” over the years, said school district Business Manager Art Beaulieu. The funds had sat unused because of increased federal funding, and “this was one of the projects we felt was within the scope of that.”
The Platteville School District has one of the lower percentages among Southwest Wisconsin school districts for free- and reduced-price lunches.
However, said Reuter, “My building for some reason has gone up the last couple years, and that’s why we started the conversation. We were seeing a change in the population level, and seeing a change in need.”
“Twenty-five to 30 would seem low in some districts, but it’s still 25 to 30,” said Vorwald. “You think not only why do they go home to that, but we expect them to perform well in school too.
“I think it’s been a great learning experience. I think it’s an eye-opener for them that even in this community, there are kids who benefit from this. What I’m really hoping is that when they leave, [students ask] what community service projects can I partake in.”
“It’s just one of those things our group does,” said PHS student Hannah VanNatta, who was putting in packages in backpacks the next-to-last Friday afternoon of the school year.
“It’s a fun experience and we enjoy helping the community,” said PHS student Lydia Wawrzak.
With the school year having ended June 7, what happens to the kids getting the backpack snacks?
“A lot of kids will be attending summer school, and if they go to both sessions they get lunch for an additional two weeks,” said Reuter. She added that some Neal Wilkins students attend a Jump Start program for reading and math starting in August. “That’s five weeks that for some kids gets covered in some way.”
The program may be expanded next year as well. Neal Wilkins is considered a “targeted Title I” school under federal law, which provides federal aid to schools with a large percentage of low-income students. If Neal Wilkins’ enrollment from low-income families exceeds 40 percent, that would mean “more personnel resources that can be used for all students,” said Reuter.
Neal Wilkins’ Title I status will be determined this summer based on January enrollments in kindergarten and first grade.
Vorwald also would like to see the program expand to Westview Elementary School.
“I’m hoping next year we can just keep on going,” she said. “I’m hoping the evaluation of who can benefit from this program can be a continual process too.”