food services

As budgets are cut, advocates push for continued free lunch

City Councilman Brad Lander speaks at a rally today to oppose school lunch cuts. (<em>Courtesy: Lander's office</em>)<br />

Last month, city officials announced a plan to save $3 million by reducing the number of students receiving free lunch next year. Today, elected officials and child advocates struck back from the steps of City Hall.

The group was arguing that the city’s plan to end the practice at some schools of providing free lunch to all students, not just those who fill out forms proving their need, could force some hungry students go unfed.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” Councilwoman Letitia James said in a statement. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

The city has said it expects to save $24 million in total by changing its school lunch program. Other changes include reducing the number of hot options at all schools and cutting 276 food service employees.

Press Release: Council Members and Advocates Rally to Save Free & Healthy Lunches in City Schools

New York, NY – New York City Council Members, along with food and public education advocates, called today for the restoration of proposed cuts to NYC’s School Food program, so that low-income kids don’t go hungry, and all kids have healthy choices. In particular, council members and advocates called for the restoration of $3 million to prevent the elimination of nearly 100 schools from the Universal School Meals program, which insures that all kids in predominantly low-income schools receive free lunches, and has been shown to improve health, nutrition, and academic achievement.

The NYC Department of Education, which has a budget of over $18 billion, has proposed substantial cuts to the School Food program: eliminating the Universal School Meals program in nearly 100 schools, and reducing the number of hot lunch options available in all schools (from 2 to 1 in elementary schools, from 3 to 2 in middle and high schools).

Under the Universal School Meals program, participating schools are able to offer students free breakfast and lunch regardless of their income, residency, or citizenship status. Filling out the necessary forms to qualify for free or reduced lunch is a barrier to many families that could benefit from these programs. The Universal School Meals program gives schools and their children access to healthy, nutritious meals while reducing the paperwork and simplifying the logistics of operating school meals programs. Providing free school meals universally within a school system has been shown to increase the likelihood that the meals are eaten, therefore improving children’s eating habits and their overall attention and ability to learn. Schools that provide universal breakfast in the classroom report decreases in discipline and psychological problems, decreases in visits to school nurses and tardiness, increases in student attentiveness and attendance, and generally improved learning environments.

“A strong public school food program – with universal free meals in low-income schools, and healthy food choices for all kids — is essential to keeping kids healthy and making sure they can learn,” said Councilmember Brad Lander. “This is a small investment in our children’s future when considering the vast improvement in academic performance and overall well-being it promotes.”

“Balancing the budget on the bellies of hungry students is just plain cruel,” stated Councilmember Robert Jackson, chair of the City Council’s Education Committee. “America is still one of the world’s wealthiest nations.  During these widespread hard times, the least we can do is feed our children. Hungry children can’t learn — what is DOE thinking?”

“Schools often serve as the primary or only source of balanced meals for our city’s youth,” said Councilmember Gale A. Brewer. “Unfortunately, many low-income students each day decide to forego school meals in order to avoid being identified as a reduced cost or free lunch student. The Universal School Meals system ensures students are not stigmatized and increases their likelihood to participate in school meals. In order to save $20-50 million in city tax levy funds, the city risks losing significant portions of the $350 million it receives in federal reimbursement dollars and depriving thousands of low income students of a nutritious meal.”

“The Universal Free Lunch Program eliminates the paperwork and stigmatic barriers to access for children who cannot normally afford to eat at school. There is nothing more important than our children’s education — shame on us if we fail to make it a top priority,” said Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

“For many low-income kids, universal free lunches are depended-upon meals,” stated Council Member Letitia James. “We all know that children need nutrients and nourishment to best process information throughout the day. Cutting universal free lunches would, in effect, be impairing children’s ability to learn. This is not an acceptable proposal.”

Said Joel Berg, Executive Director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger, “At a time when we all know it is in our self interest to fight child hunger, reduce obesity, and improve test scores, it is absurdly counterproductive to cut funding for a program that accomplishes all three of those things.”

“The movement to improve school food has been one of the most vibrant movements in many years.  Parents care about what their kids eat — they want healthy, appealing food for all our kids — and they are willing to organize for that,” said Nancy Romer, the General Coordinator for the Brooklyn Food Coalition. “As the most effective program to keep kids healthy and avoid obesity and its effects, school food should expand to provide more fresh fruits and veggies, not contract. School food is our collective offering to youngsters: it tells them what we believe about food. These cuts tell our kids that we don’t care about their health, that we won’t protect them from budget cuts. We shouldn’t jeopardize our kids’ health when taxing higher incomes at higher rates, among many other possible revenue raising initiatives, that could easily balance the budget and not take healthy food out of our kids’ mouths.”

“For our children to be able to concentrate, learn, and be productive in school, they need a hot meal so they are not hungry during the school day,” said Daysi Cuevas, a parent leader at Make the Road New York. “The Universal School Meal is an important program that helps thousands of needy families and we ask the Mayor not to cut this program.”

“The American Heart Association believes all New York City school children should have access to healthy and nutritious school meals,” stated Stephanie Chan, a survivor of heart disease and volunteer spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “Our schools should model appropriate healthy behaviors by promoting the availability of a nutritious meal during the school day. The Universal School Meals Program here in New York City makes great strides toward this goal as it reduces the barriers to these free meals. The last thing we would want to see happen is for our young people to choose unhealthy, less expensive options. On behalf of the American Heart Association, I applaud the efforts the Council Members to remove these cuts to such an important program.”

“The pennies that the city may save on meals will be overshadowed by the dollars spent administering the complicated school meal application process,” stated Áine Duggan, Vice President for Research, Policy & Education at the Food Bank For New York City.

To and Through

Newark’s post-grad paradox: More students are entering college, but few earn degrees

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka wants 25 percent of residents to have college degrees by 2025, up from 19 percent today.

When it comes to college, Newark faces a good news-bad news paradox.

More students than ever are graduating high school and enrolling in college, according to a new report. Yet fewer than one in four Newark students earns a college degree within six years of graduating high school — leaving many with limited job prospects in a city where an estimated one-third of jobs require a four-year college degree.

Now, city officials are promising to build on the report. They want to ramp up the rigor of high-school classes and create more early-college programs to increase the odds of students entering college and leaving with a degree.  

“How do we teach our children to perform — to graduate?” Mayor Ras Baraka asked at a press conference Wednesday to mark the official release of the report of Newark students’ college outcomes. “We got them in the door,” he said of students who attend college. “Now how do we make them stay?”

The city’s plans, to which Superintendent Roger León is lending his support, reflect a growing recognition that simply getting students into college is not sufficient — and can even backfire if they drop out before graduation, leaving them with college debt but no degree.

Until recently, the charge given to high schools in Newark and across the country was to foster “college-going cultures.” And these efforts showed promising results: On average, 51 percent of Newark Public School students who graduated high school between 2011 and 2016 immediately enrolled in college, up from 39 percent who did so between 2004 and 2010, according to the report by the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, or NCLC, and Rutgers University-Newark’s School of Public Affairs and Administration.

But entering college didn’t guarantee its completion. Of those students who started college straight after high school, only 39 percent earned a degree within six years, the report found.

As a result, educators and policymakers have begun to think harder about how to help students “to and through” college — to ensure they actually earn degrees. Toward that end, Baraka and the NCLC — which includes roughly 40 colleges, schools, nonprofits, and corporations — has set a goal of 25 percent of Newark residents earning college degrees or comparable credentials by 2025.

Today, just 19 percent of Newark adults have associate degrees or higher — compared to 45 percent of adults across New Jersey and 40 percent nationally.

Superintendent León, who began overseeing the city’s schools on July 1, said his main strategy for supporting these efforts will be to expose students to challenging work early on.

“If we don’t do something dramatically in classrooms to improve instruction and make it rigorous,” León said after Wednesday’s event, then students are “getting into college but they’re not completing it.”

Source: “Post-Secondary Outcomes of Newark High School Graduates (2011-2016)” report. Note: The four-year rate is an average of the classes of 2011 to 2013. The six-year rate is from the class of 2011. Graphic: Sam Park/Chalkbeat

For starters, León said he wants high schools to offer more college-level classes. In the 2016-17 school year, just 21 percent of Newark students were enrolled in one or more Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes — compared to 42 percent of students statewide.

He also vowed to raise the quality of instruction in the district’s traditional high schools. Only 14 percent of their graduates earn college degrees within six years, compared to 42 percent of graduates from the city’s selective magnet schools, the report found.

To do that, León said he will create specialized academies within the traditional schools modeled on the magnets, which have specialized themes such as science, technology, or the arts. The academies, which will partner with colleges, will most likely feature admissions criteria similar to those of magnet schools, which select students based on their academic and attendance records, León added.

And, for the first time, all ninth-grade students this academic year will take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT, León said Wednesday. An additional 1,100 eighth-graders who passed at least one of their seventh-grade PARCC exams will also take the PSAT when it’s administered on Oct. 10.

Since 2016, the district has provided the PSAT to all 10th and 11th-grade students. But León said that giving the test to younger students will focus their attention on college and help identity those who are ready for advanced classes. The PSAT is designed to help students prepare for the SAT, which is used in college admissions, and to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.

The district, which was under state control for 22 years until February, is getting some assistance in its effort to improve students’ college outcomes.

For instance, KIPP, the national charter-school network with eight schools in Newark, is sharing its strategies for helping students choose the right college with guidance counselors at three district high schools.

And the higher-education institutions in the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, including Essex County College and Rutgers University-Newark, plan to create more “dual-enrollment” programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits, said NCLC Executive Director Reginald Lewis.

“We’re all going to do a better job,” Lewis said, “of making sure that once Newark residents get in our doors, that we help them persist.”

Time crunch

In victory for teachers union, Newark superintendent scraps longer hours for low-performing schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Roger León at Hawkins Street School, one of the schools that will lose its extended hours.

Newark’s new superintendent is eliminating a program that extended the hours of struggling schools, which the teachers union has long attacked as ineffective and unfair to educators.

Teachers at roughly 30 schools will no longer receive $3,000 annual stipends for the extra hours, a provision written into the current teachers contract, which extends to 2019. Instead, all 64 district schools will get extra funding for before and after-school programs, Superintendent Roger León said in an email to employees on Tuesday.

The changes will go into effect Monday, Sept. 10, resulting in new hours for the affected schools just days after the new school year began. The district is still working to adjust pickup times for students who are bused to school, according to León’s email. A few of the schools will phase out their extended hours later in the year, the email said.

“We will not continue to do the same things as before and be surprised when the results do not change,” León wrote, adding that cutting the extra hours would save the district $5 million.

In an interview with Chalkbeat Thursday, León said the move is intended to create more uniformity among schools and the services they provide. Now, all schools will get additional money to pay for programs outside of the regular school day, which schools can tailor to their individual needs, though students who are struggling academically will continue to receive “intensive” support, he said.

“Ultimately, the idea would be by October having completely different after-school and before-school programming that meets the needs of each respective school,” León said.

The extended time was first included in the teachers contract in 2012 as part of a larger improvement plan for the targeted schools, which was developed by Cami Anderson, Newark’s former state-appointed superintendent. The plan also designated some low-performing schools as “renew” schools, where teachers had to reapply for their positions and work longer hours.

Anderson also closed some schools and gave principals new hiring authority. Both actions left dozens of tenured teachers without positions, so Anderson created a fund to pay those teachers to perform support duties in schools. In 2014, that fund for “employees without placement” cost the district $35 million out of its nearly $1 billion budget, though by last year the fund had shrunk to $8 million for about 100 unassigned teachers, according to officials.

León said in Tuesday’s email that he was also eliminating the fund, which he said would save the district another $6 million. The teachers union president said he believed all the unassigned teachers now have placements, but the district did not respond to a request to confirm that.

León is also removing the “renew” and “turnaround” labels from low-performing schools, citing their “progress and student achievement,” according to the email.

“I applaud everyone’s efforts at renew or turnaround schools and acknowledge what has been accomplished,” he wrote.

Now that León has abolished his predecessors’ school-improvement program, he will be expected to create his own. Many schools remain mired in poor performance, even as the district overall has made strides in recent years.

When the teachers union agreed to the extended hours in its 2012 contract with the district, it was hailed nationally as a major breakthrough in efforts to revamp troubled schools. But even as the union agreed last year to keep the provision in its current contract, union officials have assailed the turnaround effort as a failure.

NTU President John Abeigon told Chalkbeat on Thursday that the program had been a “scam” and “nothing more than extended childcare.” He added that the stipend teachers received amounted to about $7 per hour for the extra time they worked.

In 2016, a district-commissioned survey of 787 teachers at schools with extended hours found that two-thirds of teachers at schools where the extra time was spent on student instruction said the time was valuable. But in a survey the union conducted in April, the 278 teachers who responded gave the extended hours low ratings for effectiveness in boosting student achievement.

Some teachers in the union survey praised the longer hours, saying their schools used them effectively to lengthen class periods, run after-school clubs, or allow teachers to plan lessons or review student data. But others said the extra time was squandered, leaving staff and students exhausted with little evidence of improved student outcomes to show for it. (Students’ pass rates on state tests stayed flat or declined at most “renew” schools in the first years of the program.)

The union also has complained that many teachers felt compelled to work the extra hours because those who refused to could be transferred to different schools. Under the terms of the original extended-day agreement, teachers were required to work an extra hour per day and attend trainings during the summer and some weekends.

In León’s email to employees, he said every extended-day school had set different work requirements and “none are consistent with the original design.” The longer days may also be contributing to high teacher turnover in those schools, he wrote, adding that principals of schools with regular hours told him they did not want to extend their hours.

Abeigon, the union president, applauded León’s decision to scrap the extra work hours.

“He came to the conclusion that we expected any true educator to reach: that the program was not working and was never going to work,” he said.

León said Thursday that he is now working on a new turnaround program. Once it’s ready, he promised to share the details with affected families before publicly announcing which schools are part of it — an effort to avoid the student protests that erupted when Anderson identified her “turnaround” schools.

He also said he was still considering whether he would ever close schools that fail to improve or to reverse their declining enrollments. Anderson’s decision to shutter nearly a dozen long-struggling schools continues to fuel resentment among her critics even years later.

“I think the whole idea of how much time does a school get to correct itself is a very important one and I’m going to need to be really reflective on it,” León said. “I’ve seen what closing schools does with people who do not feel that they were aware of it or a part of fixing it.”