First Person

Healthier school menus not enough

School gardens, such as this one at Fairview Elementary in Denver, help reduce student resistance to healthier cafeteria meals, according to a recent study.

Redesigning school menus to be healthier and less reliant on processed foods makes sense but schools that want to influence long-term changes in students’ dietary habits should do more, a new report concludes.

For schools to more significantly influence their students’ food choices, they need to combine healthy lunchroom offerings with school gardens and cooking classes and integrate principles of good nutrition into all academic subjects, say researchers at the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

Failing that makes it more challenging to entice students to try new foods, to pack their own low-fat lunches, to regularly eat the healthful fare provided at school and to lobby for similarly healthful meals at home.

The report – Evaluation of the School Lunch Initiative: Changing Students’ Knowledge, Attitudes and Behavior in Relation to Food – examines the progress made in just one school district, the Berkeley Unified School District in California. But the findings do have broad implications for Colorado.

Click here or scroll to the bottom to see the key recommendations from Berkeley researchers.

For one, the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley was the brainchild of Ann Cooper, the nationally renowned “Renegade Lunch Lady,” who was Nutrition Services Director for BUSD before coming to the Boulder Valley School District in 2008 to revamp that local school district’s lunchroom offerings. Boulder Valley has been among the leaders in Colorado in jumping on the national school lunchroom reform bandwagon, along with Denver Public Schools.

For another, while Boulder Valley and DPS have been among the most aggressive in changing the nature of school meals, districts across the state have launched changes to one degree or another, including training school food personnel in scratch cooking, adding salad bars, banning sodas and flavored milks, and attempting to offer more Colorado-grown fresh produce and meats.

A much smaller number of schools have planted school gardens or partnered with outside organizations to offer cooking classes to students, in hopes of introducing them to healthful new foods and helping them develop a taste for the nutritious. Others have begun offering wellness classes or have built nutrition curriculum into P.E. or health classes.

Integration is key

The Berkeley study indicates that schools that manage to integrate cooking, gardening and classroom instruction along with improved lunchroom fare will produce the greatest long-term positive changes in students’ diets and lifestyle, and will see less student resistance to changed menus that no longer include tasty but unhealthy favorites.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Parents with children in schools with highly developed programs – those that coupled improvements in school lunch with classroom learning and cooking and gardening classes – were more than twice as likely to say the school affected their child’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior in relation to food.
  • Preference for fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, was far greater in schools with highly developed programs than in schools without. In fact, younger students in the highly developed schools increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by nearly one and a half servings per day.
  • Middle school students exposed to highly developed programs were more likely to feel good about eating food served at school, to like the cafeteria, to think that produce tastes better in season, and to agree that eating choices can help or hurt the environment.

Also, the percentage of students complaining that the new lunchroom offerings were not as tasty as the old menu steadily decreased, from 18.5 percent the first year to 9.1 percent by the third year.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students who felt the new menu was tastier than the old steadily rose, from 7.7 percent the first year to 27.3 percent by the third.

Overcoming student reluctance

Student distaste for some of the new healthy lunchroom options has been a problem in Boulder Valley and elsewhere. School officials say it’s normal for sales of school lunches to fall – and especially for milk sales to initially plummet if chocolate milk is no longer an option – but that they expect sales to gradually rise as students adjust to the changes. In Boulder Valley, the school nutrition program lost $360,000 last year because of decreased sales. This Sept. 13 story from the Boulder Daily Camera documents the problem.

Ann Cooper has a national following as the "Renegade Lunch Lady" and school food consultant.

Cooper remains confident that the changes in Boulder Valley school menus will ultimately prove successful, even though the district doesn’t offer much in the way of experiential learning related to food. She says only about a quarter of the district’s schools have gardens, and many fewer offer cooking classes.

“In a perfect world, I would have cooking and gardening classes in all the schools, in all grades,” she said. “Berkeley has a much higher population of free and reduced price lunch students than Boulder does. That makes a difference.

“But the importance of experiential learning to get children to change their eating patterns correlates no matter where you are. That transcends income levels. And the idea that kids actually do take home what they learn in the school cafeteria is a great lesson.”

Cooper says without cooking and gardening classes to entice youngsters to try new foods, the lunchroom staff just has to work harder to make the meals appealing. One strategy is to offer free “tastings,” so children can sample new dishes to pique their interest.

“It may take longer, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” she said. “Big business is spending $20 billion a year marketing non-nutrients to kids, marketing junk food. When you have experiential learning, your road to success is smoother and faster, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have success without it.”

Cooper also insists that despite dropping lunch sales in some schools, for every complaint she gets nine compliments about the food now being served in Boulder. “And the complaint emails I get aren’t all about the food, but about the short lunch periods, or having recess after lunch she said.”

“I’ve only been here 14 months,” she said. “I’m not sure what will come next, but we are continuing to raise the quality and to get really good food to kids every day. Over time, we will get more kids to eat.”

New menus a hit in DPS

In Denver, the changes to the school lunch menus seem to have increased – not decreased – student sales. Leo Lesh,  DPS director of food and nutrition services, reports that during the first three weeks of school, lunch sales were up 4 percent over the same period last year, and in those schools that have moved to scratch cooking, sales are up 6 percent.

“The district has grown so some of that is just more new kids in the system,” he said. “But we don’t have 6 percent more new kids.”

DPS lunchroom workers spent time in culinary classes over the summer to learn some scratch cooking basics, as the district moves aggressively to improve its lunchroom fare.

Lesh said DPS has followed a different philosophy than Boulder Valley.

“We haven’t been pushing organics, and we haven’t been as prohibitive as Ann has,” he said. “Our kids still have a choice of flavored milk that’s been reformulated to have less sugar. Kids want that choice. Most likely, the only time a kid will get flavored milk is at school because parents don’t usually buy chocolate milk at home. If they drink more milk, they’ll drink less soda. And milk has more nutrients in it. You don’t get calcium in water. You do get it in milk, even in flavored milk.”

Lesh said DPS has also avoided investing in organic food because he wants to make it easy for parents to emulate what’s served in school cafeterias. “We know a lot won’t buy organics because they don’t have the money. But the idea of making a wholesome meal from scratch is something everybody can do.”

Lesh wishes more schools had gardens, but he says even those that do don’t always succeed at getting youngsters into it.

“It helps to have nutrition education, and a garden where kids can see where their food is coming from. But not that many kids get involved,” he said. “It’s boring to many of them. If you had a ton of kids involved, that would help, but I don’t think a garden is something that has to be there.

“But the education, the choices you offer in the cafeteria, seeing things prepared from scratch, offering better quality food – do that and kids will naturally gravitate to the cafeteria.”

Using pyschology to boost sales

Like Boulder Valley, DPS tries to offer “tastings” of its new menu offerings to lure children into sampling things they may never have eaten at home before. Lunchroom workers also try to use some psychology to market their foods.

“It’s little things, like making sure the fruit is placed in colorful bowls instead of stainless steel,” Lesh said. “And we have our people wear uniforms, chef coats, to make them look and act more professional. This goes a long way in the perception of our customers.”

DPS isn’t alone in applying child psychology to lunchroom marketing. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new $2 million initiative to hire food behavior scientists to find betters ways of making healthy school lunches more appealing to students while subtly discouraging unhealthy treats.

Among the strategies some places are employing: keeping ice cream in freezers without glass tops so it’s out of sight; placing salad bars next to checkout registers, so students waiting in line to pay will have more time to consider getting a salad; and express lines for healthier foods.

The three-year study of the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, Calif., concluded with a number of recommendations for districts. Among them:

  • Sustain an integrated approach. Continue to create synergies between school food and garden and cooking classes. Further develop curriculum integration with core academic subjects.
  • Ensure teaching and regular student attendance in school gardens and kitchen classrooms. It is not enough to build a school garden or kitchen classroom. Paid staff to conduct hands-on learning in these environments with children attending regularly is critical.
  • Maintain programming into middle school. Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen. Continued learning and availability of healthy food options can overcome the pull toward poor habits.
  • Reach out to parents and community members. More insight is needed to understand why children and not helping with cooking meals and home.
  • Devise ways to improve the quality of food brought from home to school, including food brought for celebrations, fund-raisers and other events.
  • Explore ways to increase student physical activity during garden and cooking classes.
  • Reinforce a wide variety of healthy eating behaviors. This means emphasis on reducing the consumption of low-quality processed foods and sweetened beverages along with practical tips about obtaining and choosing high-quality foods.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.