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.”

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.

Battle of the Bands

How one group unites, provides opportunities for Memphis-area musicians

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Memphis Mass Band members prepare for Saturday's Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands in Jackson, Mississippi.

A drumline’s cadence filled the corners of Fairley High School’s band room, where 260 band members from across Memphis wrapped up their final practice of the week.

“M-M-B!” the group shouted before lifting their instruments to attention. James Taylor, one of the program’s five directors, signaled one last stand tune before he made his closing remarks.

“It behooves you to be on that bus at that time,” Taylor said to the room of Memphis Mass Band members Thursday night, reminding them to follow his itinerary. Saturday would be a be a big day after all.

That’s when about 260 Memphis Mass Band members will make their way to Jackson, Mississippi, for the event of the season: the Independence Showdown Battle of the Bands. They’ll join mass bands from New Orleans, Detroit, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina to showcase musical performances.

“This is like the Honda of mass bands,” said baritone section leader Marico Ray, referring to the Honda Battle of the Bands, the ultimate competition between bands from historically black colleges and universities

Mass bands are designed to connect young band members to older musicians, many of whom are alumni of college bands and can help them through auditions and scholarship applications.

Created in 2011, Memphis Mass Band is a co-ed organization that’s geared toward unifying middle school, high school, college, and alumni bands across the city. The local group is a product of a merger of a former alumni and all-star band, each then about a decade old.

Ray, who joined what was called the Memphis All Star band in 2001, said the group challenged him in a way that his high school band could not.

“I was taught in high school that band members should be the smartest people, because you have to take in and do so much all at once,” he said, noting that band members have to play, count, read, and keep a tempo at the same time.

But the outside program would put that to the test. Ray laughed as he remembered his first day of practice with other all-star members.

“I was frightened,” he said. “I knew I was good, but I wanted to be how good everybody else was.”

Ray, now 30, credits the group for his mastery of the baritone, for his college degree, and for introducing him to his wife Kamisha. By the time he graduated from Hillcrest High School in 2006 and joined the local alumni band, he was already well-connected with band directors from surrounding colleges, like Jackson State University, where he took courses in music education. After he married Kamisha, an all-star alumna and fellow baritone player, they both came back to Memphis to join the newly formed Memphis Mass Band.

“This music is very important, but what you do after this is what’s gonna make you better in life,” he said. “The goal is to make everyone as good as possible, and if you’re competing with the next person all the time, you’ll never stop trying to get better.”

In a school district that has seen many school closures and mergers in recent years, Ray said a program like MMB is needed for students who’ve had to bounce between school bands. The band is open-admission, meaning it will train anyone willing to put in the work, without requiring an audition.

“[Relocation] actually hurts a lot of our students and children because that takes their mentality away from anything that they wanted to do, versus them being able to continue going and striving,” Ray said. “Some of them lose opportunities and scholarships, college life and careers, because of a change in atmospheres.”

With its unique mix of members, though, school rivalries are common, and MMB occasionally deals with cross-system spars. But Saturday, the members will put all of that aside.

“What school you went to really doesn’t matter,” Ray said. “Everybody out here is going to wear the same uniform.”

Asia Wilson, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Memphis, heard about the group from a friend. Wilson used to play trumpet in the Overton High School band, but she said coming to MMB this year has introduced her to a different style.

Jorge Pena, a sophomore at Central High School, heard about the group on YouTube. It’s also his first year in the mass band, and the tuba player is now gearing up to play alongside members of different ages, like Wilson.

They’re both ready to show what they’ve learned at the big battle.

“It’s gonna be lit,” Wilson said, smiling.

Need weekend plans? Tickets are still selling for Saturday’s 5 p.m. showcase. To purchase, click here.