Breakfast Brouhaha

More kids to get free school breakfast under law, but some districts feel financial squeeze

As the second phase of Colorado’s “Breakfast After the Bell” law takes effect this fall, thousands more low-income students will have access to free breakfast served during school hours.

It’s a development lauded by advocates who say the program improves attendance and achievement, but not always by administrators in the districts required to provide the universal free meals.

“We are taking money out of the classroom to pay for the Breakfast after the Bell program,” said Glenn Gustafson, chief financial officer in Colorado Springs District 11.

The law, passed in 2013, made Colorado one of the first states to require free breakfast after the start of the school day for all students in high-poverty schools. Now, about six states and Washington, D.C. have such mandates and several others have laws that recommend or subsidize breakfast after the bell programs.

This year, about 176,000 Colorado students attend schools that must offer breakfast after the bell.

Last year, the law affected 245 schools in about two-dozen districts and food service programs associated with charter schools. Those schools enrolled nearly 104,000 students. This year, there is more consternation from some quarters because more than 100 additional schools in 14 additional districts and an online charter school must meet the meal mandate if they haven’t already.

These new adopters have lower poverty rates than last year’s adopters.

That’s because the law initially applied only to schools where at least 80 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals. This year, that threshold drops to 70 percent.

That 10-percentage-point span, some food service directors say, is where the program becomes financially untenable because of the way federal meal reimbursements work and the added labor costs of providing more breakfasts.

Such concerns were the impetus for a failed push in the legislature last year to keep the threshold at 80 percent. District 11, which created a video about the issue, was one of the most vocal supporters of the defeated bill.

“It is taking resources from the general fund … It is a challenge for us,” said Gustafson.

Some districts break even

Not every district adding new schools under the law this year expects to face financial difficulties. It depends on a variety of factors, ranging from how the meals are served to the poverty levels in district schools.

In Jefferson County, two additional schools added Breakfast After the Bell this year, joining 19 from last year.

Linda Stoll, the district’s executive director of food services, said those two schools will lose money but the overall program won’t because there are so many schools above the 80 percent threshold.

“Two schools at 70 percent aren’t going to break the bank,” she said.

Still, she said, the new phase of the program is a hardship for districts because more students with the means to pay for breakfast are given the meal for free.

In District 11, Gustafson said one of the biggest financial factors is that more employees are qualifying for health insurance as their hours increase because of added breakfast prep duties. Administrators there calculated the program would lose around $54,000 this year.

Cate Blackford, child nutrition manager at Hunger Free Colorado, noted that some districts make breakfast after the bell programs work in schools that have far fewer than 70 percent of students eligible for free or reduced meals.

“Every school district is different. They have different populations, different equipment … different staffing needs, so it’s really hard to compare one to another,” she said.  “Our priority is to make sure we’re maximizing participation”

For each free or reduced-price meal, districts get reimbursed either $1.66 or $1.99, depending on poverty levels. They get reimbursed only 29 cents for the children who would normally pay full price for their meals.

In Mesa County Valley District 51, four new schools are providing Breakfast After the Bell this year, up from one last year.

Dan Sharp, the district’s director of food and nutrition services, said it’s financially viable because of the delivery model the district chose.

Under the law, districts have flexibility in how they get the meals to students. Common options include breakfast in the classroom, in the cafeteria or at mobile grab-and-go stations. The classroom version, which usually requires crates or coolers of food to be delivered all over a school, tends to be the most complicated and labor-intensive.

Here’s how Breakfast After the Bell works in District 51: A hot breakfast is offered in the cafeteria before school starts. It includes traditional breakfast foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes or breakfast burritos.

About 15 minutes into the school day, students who missed the cafeteria meal have the option of taking a bagged breakfast from a grab-and-go station near the main entrance. That breakfast typically includes a granola cookie that meets federal nutrition standards, milk and juice or fruit.

Sharp said with hot choices and more variety before school, students are incentivized to come early for breakfast. Indeed, most kids who ate through Breakfast After the Bell last year —about 45 percent of the student body—ate early in the cafeteria.

“To us, this is definitely a more cost effective model,” he said.

Why breakfast for more kids?

The idea behind Breakfast After the Bell is that students do better in class if they’re not hungry and that more students will eat school breakfast if its offered to all students for free during school hours, instead of just to the “poor kids” before school.

In fact, some food service administrators say they have seen big increases in participation since they switched from before-school breakfast to after-the-bell meals.

In Adams 12, the district began serving an additional 1,340 breakfasts a day last year after adding about a half-dozen schools to its breakfast-after-the-bell roster for a total of 12.

While Naomi Steenson, the district’s director of nutrition services, said some teachers have complained about the tedious job of counting and recording breakfast items taken in the classroom, they also see the benefits.

She said, “In the same breath, the teacher will say [students are] better behaved and…They are more apt to learn than if they’re hungry.”

But others say the breakfast increases aren’t dramatic.

Stoll, of Jeffco, believes it’s partly because of the false assumption that children from poor families don’t get breakfast at home. Some do, she said.

There’s also the fact that school breakfast choices, which must comply with federal nutrition standards, don’t always appeal to kids. For example, Stoll said many Hispanic students don’t like the whole grain tortillas used in school burritos because they are used to scratch-made white flour tortillas at home.

Coming to terms

After vigorous lobbying by some districts over the last two years to keep the Breakfast After the Bell eligibility threshold at 80 percent, there seems to be a growing acceptance that 70 percent is a fact of life.

Several administrators said this week that while they were unhappy with the lower percentage and the sense that they weren’t heard by law-makers, they are moving past the controversy.

Steenson, who testified before the legislature in favor of maintaining the 80 percent threshold, said, “I’ve said my piece….so now it’s just time to figure it out.”

She added, “I think it’s a great program. It resulted in some tension when the bill passed…but it is the right thing to do. It is good for kids.”

Blackford said Hunger Free Colorado is continuing conversations with the state’s School Nutrition Association to support districts in implementing Breakfast after the Bell.

“We want to make sure school nutrition service directors are set up for success.”

Gustafson said District 11, where eight schools must add the program this year, will abide by the law.

“We’re going to do it with all good intentions and due diligence,” he said. “…Whether I like it or not is moot.”

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.