Lunch is served

Now that lunch is free for all New York City students: How many will eat it?

PHOTO: Denver Post

When schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced the day before school started last week that New York City would no longer charge any student for school lunch, principals across the city celebrated the change.

Now, to their relief, they wouldn’t have to pester families who often wound up owing them for unpaid meals or worry that some students were skipping out on lunch because they were ashamed about qualifying for free meals. But, to make the most of the program, they would have to spread the word to families and encourage students to take advantage of it — so some immediately began drafting letters to families and preparing to make lunchroom announcements.

But even as schools rushed to carry out the new policy, which made an additional 200,000 students eligible for free lunch, city officials didn’t expect a sudden spike in students eating school lunches. And even advocates say it will require sustained outreach to convince middle-class and low-income students alike to take the free meals.

“This is a policy that for decades had separated children by income,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “It’s going to take some time to undo that.”

Even though most principals welcomed the new policy, some said it was unlikely to create a big change at schools where most students already received free lunch.

Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said many of his students reacted with indifference when they were told about the new policy. He suspects that’s because — as in many city schools where most of the students come from low-income families — the vast majority of students were already eligible for subsidized meals.

“It’s great,” he said, “but the reality is a huge portion of our kids are already getting free lunch.”

For years, advocates have pushed Mayor Bill de Blasio to make lunch free for all students. Until now, families have had to earn at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $45,510 for a family of four, to qualify for subsidized lunch. While 75 percent of the city’s students qualified under that old standard, some families who earned more still couldn’t easily afford the $1.75 lunch — and students often felt stigmatized for claiming a free meal.

The city had been moving incrementally toward free lunch, making it universal at standalone middle schools in 2014, which resulted in a 6 percent increase in those students eating school lunch, officials said. Now that lunch is free citywide, an education department spokesman projected the new lunch policy would result in 29,000 additional students getting lunch each day — a 3.4 percent increase.

That relatively modest bump is far lower than what some advocates have predicted. Community Food Advocates had anticipated an additional 120,000 lunches per day, and the organization’s executive director, Liz Accles, stressed the city should work to aggressively to make sure parents know it’s free and convince students to participate.

“The policy change is most important, but what’s the messaging to students and families?” Accles said. “I think there should be a bigger jump than 3 percent if there’s a real effort to publicize.”

City officials noted Fariña sent a letter home announcing the change, notices have appeared on school websites, and some principals have been sending reminders of their own.

At Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, principal Damon McCord said he appreciated the new policy even though his school has not struggled with any stigma associated with free lunch.

A relatively even mix of students at MELS qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but because students pay for lunch using a barcode on the back of their student ID cards (a common practice at city schools) it’s difficult for students to tell which of their classmates cannot afford lunch.

“That system had gone a long way to help take some of the anxiety out of the lunch lines,” McCord said.

Still, McCord and other principals expressed some concern that the new program could make it more difficult to qualify for federal Title I funding that flows to schools with higher shares of students who qualify for subsidized lunch.

McCord sent an email to families Monday stressing that even though lunch will be free for all students, families should still fill out the old income forms to help the school collect additional federal funding.

Last year, the proportion of families who qualified was about five percentage points short of the 60 percent threshold required for schools to receive extra Title I money, he said. McCord said he is unsure if the free lunch program will make it more difficult to persuade parents to submit the form.

But, in a sign of how federal funding can provide a major boost to school budgets, he noted two to three school staffers would spend the next month making sure families filled out the forms. (City officials said moving to universal free lunch in middle schools created few paperwork problems.)

“There’s a lot that a school can do with that money,” McCord said. “It’s a feast-or-famine system that’s in dire need of reform.”

Across the city at the Academy of Arts and Letters, a K-8 school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that wasn’t included in the middle school free lunch program, principal John O’Reilly said he’s thrilled about the new program.

Because students are allowed to roam between lunch and recess, there is less scrutiny of who is eating school lunches and who isn’t, even though about a third of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, O’Reilly said.

As the city has worked to make school lunches more nutritious by adding salad bars and using more locally-sourced ingredients, it appears to be having an added benefit of attracting a wider range of students to the lunch line, lessening the stigma attached to school meals.

“When the lunch is better, it’s harder to know who’s qualified for free lunch and who isn’t,” O’Reilly said. “They want really good food.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

Out of the game

The businessman who went to bat for apprenticeships is out of Colorado’s governor’s race

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Noel Ginsburg, an advocate for apprenticeships and a critic of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, has withdrawn from the Democratic race for governor.

Ginsburg, a businessman who had never run for office before, always faced a tough road to the nomination. He announced Tuesday that he would not continue with the petition-gathering or assembly process after his last place finish in the caucus, where he got 2 percent of the vote.

In an interview with The Denver Post, Ginsburg said, “I don’t believe I have the resources to be fully competitive.”

Just last month, Ginsburg released an education platform that called for the repeal of Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, the signature legislative achievement of former state Sen. Mike Johnston, also a candidate for governor.

Ginsburg runs CareerWise, an apprenticeship initiative of Gov. John Hickenlooper that allows students to earn money and college credit while getting on-the-job experience starting in high school. His platform called for expanding apprenticeship programs and getting businesses more involved in education.

He also promised to lead a statewide effort to change the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to retain more revenue and send much of it to schools. He said that schools, not roads, should be the top priority of Colorado’s next governor.

Ginsburg will continue at the head of CareerWise, as well as Intertech Plastics, the company he founded.

Johnston, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne have all turned in signatures to place their names on the ballot. Former Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the endorsement of two teachers unions, is not gathering signatures and will need at least 30 percent of the vote at the assembly to appear on the ballot. Kennedy finished in first place at the caucus earlier this month.