By the time afternoon periods roll around, Stefanie Siegel struggles to keep her English classes focused on the assignments in front of them. Many of the students haven’t eaten since the early morning, or the night before, and they watch the clock for 2:01 p.m.
That’s when class ends and lunch begins at Paul Robeson High School, a Crown Heights school in its first year of phasing out.
“I teach a senior English class in the morning and afternoon. Those [afternoon] kids were really hard to deal with, and it was mostly because they were hungry,” Siegel said. “My first period was 10 a.m., and that group was much easier to work with. There’s just a huge difference.”
Students start school at 8:35 a.m. Some hop off campus to buy food after seventh period, shortly after 1 p.m. Siegel said, and many teachers allow them to eat the food at their desks.
“We have some really old-school teachers who say, ‘no eating in the class,’ but even they have had to allow it,” she said.
“If you don’t make it for the breakfast program — and a lot of them don’t — and if you don’t bring something with you, you haven’t had any breakfast,” she said. “These kids might not have had dinner last night, either.”
Citing poor attendance and low graduation rates, the city decided to close Robeson last year, despite a vigorous defense by students at raucous public hearings. This year, Robeson did not admit a ninth-grade class.
Now that Robeson has started to shrink, it must jostle for cafeteria time with two new schools that have opened in the building, The other schools offer lunch to students from 11:42 a.m. into the early afternoon.
Last year, Robeson students were served lunch over three periods, between the mid-morning and the early afternoon. Now, all but a tiny handful eat at the same time, after classes have concluded for the day.
Some Robeson students are scheduled for lunch at 11:42 a.m., according to a department spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg. But Siegel said the lunch slot, part of a program for a small handful of chronically absent students, was added only this week. More than a dozen students said after school Tuesday they did not know about the early lunch period option.
But Siegel explained that the administration believes the timing of the free cafeteria meal is ideal for getting students to stay after school, when tutoring is offered.
It’s a position that resonates with some students.
“[The timing] used to be more of a problem,” said Lizabeth Cooper, a Robeson senior who represents students on the citywide Panel for Educational Policy, which voted to close the school. “Students used to leave at lunch time and not come back. This is making them stick through the day.”
But the attendance strategy comes at a cost, many Robeson students say.
“It’d be great if lunch were earlier, because I’m starving by the end of the day,” said Angel Parrales, a senior. “Teachers will let us eat during class, but it’s just chips, not a full meal. You can’t live off chips alone.”
At 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, senior Akeem Pearce said over a takeout container of fried chicken and rice that he often doesn’t have time for breakfast, so he relies on vending-machine fare to hold him over until dismissal.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Later in the day, my stomach [is] talking to me, and the teacher is talking to me at the same time. I don’t know who to listen to.”