First Person

Commentary: In-class breakfasts a promising innovation

Robert Reichardt, the former director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at CU-Denver’s School of Public Affairs, is president of R-Squared Research, LLC, a local research firm.

One of the biggest challenges for schools is dealing with demographic changes in their student population.  As the Colorado Children’s Campaign has pointed out, this is a significant challenge for Colorado schools because our proportion of kids in poverty has grown faster than anywhere else in the nation.

One response to this challenge is serving in-class breakfasts to all students in a school.  This intervention was recently highlighted in this Denver Post article. In most schools, this is free to all students because of high rates of free and reduced lunch eligibility. Federal funds cover most if not all of the expenses.

A few weeks ago I visited an elementary school that started an in-class breakfast program this school-year. Before school, carts were used to deliver three coolers of food for each classroom (one with the hot entrée, milk and one with fruit).  Everyone had the same entrée (cheese quesadilla the day I visited). Kids came to their classes, picked up their food, and quickly sat down to eat.

It was very calm and orderly process (I am not used to elementary schools being this quiet).  I spoke with several teachers who said they had been apprehensive about in-class (e.g. the mess, the potential chaos, and lost instructional time) at the beginning of the year, and are now big fans of the program. Teachers and the principals reported they now had fewer morning behavior problems and kids seemed to be more-on task than last year.

In the lower grades, it took less than 15 minutes for the kids to finish eating. In the intermediate grade classroom I observed the teacher started the day’s administrative tasks while kids were eating, which slowed the eating.  Each classroom had a bagged trashcan for the breakfast waste which was placed outside of the classroom for pickup.  Waste was minimized by not using paper-plates or bowls.  The custodian said his daily workload had not increased with the program: He spent his morning picking up garbage instead of cleaning up after breakfast in the lunchroom.

But he did at least one extra shampoo of the classroom floors per year.  The biggest challenge seemed to be finding a place to store the carts, coolers, and extra food.

I am sure that the program is not all easy.  A teacher reported they had a breakfast with syrup only once.  In my household we would probably have to send a breakfast to school with our kid who has dietary restrictions (but we might be able to sleep-in an extra 15 minutes).  I am sure not everyone likes the food.  If this program is rolled out to schools with lower free and reduced lunch counts, administration may become more challenging.

A recent NBER research report by Imberman and Kugler finds these free in-class breakfasts can have some significant impacts on student achievement.   They were able to compare changes in test scores, attendance, and grades as the program was rolled out over an 11 week period in 88 schools within a large urban district (87 percent Hispanic or black).  The district had piloted in-class breakfasts in 33 schools prior to this rollout.  The pilot shows the in-class breakfast program doubled proportion of eligible kids who ate breakfast (41 percent to 80 percent).

Inberman and Kugler used a type of value-added analysis and found that kids in schools with in-class breakfasts had a .1 standard deviation increase in test scores compared to schools that did not have the program.  This change was about half the size seen when class-sizes were reduced to 15 students in the Tennessee STAR experiment.

The data also suggests that the increase in test scores was larger for lower performing and Hispanic students. They did not see larger test score increases in schools that had been in the breakfast longer; suggesting the changes in test scores may be due to improved test-taking instead of actual learning gains.  (Earlier research by Figlio and Winicki suggests schools can increase test scores by serving increased calories during test time).  Imberman and Kugler found a weak impact of the free breakfast program on attendance and no impact on course grades.

All of this does not prove that in-class breakfasts are a slam dunk in terms of effectiveness. But, we need to try out new and different strategies to respond to our changing student population and the very real problem of hunger in our communities.  And, for many of our schools this is a no-cost initiative given federal support for meals.

To prove the value of these lunches we need districts to agree to a rollout process that supports a good research design and more data collection during the implementation of these meals, particularly information from students about whether they regularly get breakfast at home.  I hope researchers and school districts can work together to evaluate and hopefully further this type of initiative.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.