Healthy Schools

EdWeek: Cuts hit summer lunch programs

Editor’s note: This Education Week article is one result of a partnership between EdNews Colorado and the weekly education journal, allowing us to provide in-depth stories from a national perspective.

By Mary Ann Zehr

A child gets a lunch of low-fat pizza, milk and grapes at Denver's Eagleton Elementary School, one of 40 DPS schools to run a free summer feeding program.

Budget cuts for transportation and a scaling-back of summer school led to fewer children getting free lunches this summer in at least one school district, while economic pressures on families in other locations drove up participation in free or reduced-price meals programs elsewhere.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture hasn’t yet reported data for participation this year in free or reduced-price summer meals programs, but directors of food services in several districts credit the ailing economy with driving participation either up or down, depending on how programs are implemented.

The recession affected participation in nutrition programs funded by the Department of Agriculture last summer, according to an analysis of federal data by the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. That group, known as FRAC, reported in June that the department’s two summer meals programs — the Summer Food Service Program and theNational School Lunch Program — together served 73,000 fewer children on an average day in July 2009 than in July 2008. An average of 2.8 million children were served each day in July of last year, according to the analysis.

This summer, the number of free lunches provided to children by the Corning-Painted Post district in Corning, N.Y., dropped from 19,305 to 15,710, or by 19 percent, said Christine E. Wallace, the director of food services for the 5,400-student district.

Ms. Wallace said that the meals service was slashed in several elementary schools this summer when the district eliminated its K-5 summer school program because of a lack of funding. She said the chances for children to get free meals was also reduced because the district didn’t have any money to transport children to meals sites, such as at churches, a library, and recreation centers, as it had done the previous year. For the three summers prior to last summer, a federal grant paid for transportation of students to meals sites.

In her rural district, which covers 57 square miles, students often don’t get to summer meals sites without transportation, Ms. Wallace said.

Meanwhile, in Denver Public Schools, the size of the district’s summer school program was about the same this summer as last, but the summer nutrition program grew by leaps and bounds. This June and July the district served 123,072 lunches, up from 79,140 lunches last summer, said Leo J. Lesh, the executive director of enterprise management for the Denver schools.

He attributes the jump to an increase in need because of financial pressures on families and increased publicity for the summer nutrition program. That extra publicity was supported by Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who started a statewide initiative last year to end childhood hunger.

Three or four times over the summer, the governor spoke during recorded calls to the homes of the 78,000 students in the district, reminding parents of the free summer meals program.

Mr. Lesh said that the district doesn’t provide transportation to the summer meals sites, but that many children in Denver can get to them. He said that if meals are connected to a summer program, participation is higher.

“If all you are going to do is come in and eat and go home, that makes a difference in participation,” he said. “Some of the recreation centers do better [with participation] because you can go there, play basketball, and eat.”

Connecticut’s New Haven school system also saw an increase in participation in its summer nutrition program this year compared with 2009. The district served 106,451 lunches, up from 102,299 lunches last year, said Timothy Cipriano, a trained chef and the executive director of food services for the district. He attributes the increase to an increase in need among families because of hard economic times.

Summer means vacation time for lots of children, but for students from low-income families, it may not be a happy time, he said.

“When school is out, there is very little availability of good nutrition” for some students, Mr. Cipriano said. He said that food banks and soup kitchens can’t keep up with the demand in the area for food during the summer.

The New Haven district, which has about 20,000 students, has tried various methods to spread the word about a phone number that parents can call to find a summer meals site near where they live. This summer, the district worked with community partners to advertise summer meals on a billboard in New Haven. Mr. Cipriano teamed up with a group called End Hunger Connecticut! to record a public-service announcement for summer meals that aired on radio stations in the state as well.

A national group with a mission to end childhood hunger, Share Our Strength, based in Washington, estimates that only about 17 percent of children who get free or reduced-price lunches during the school year receive meals from federally funded lunch programs during the summer. The group worked with Gov. Ritter of Colorado, a Democrat, to start Colorado’s campaign to combat childhood hunger. The governor issued an executive order setting a goal of ending childhood hunger in the state by 2015.

Josh Wachs, the chief strategy officer for Share Our Strength, said his group raises money so it can provide small grants to organizations to overcome barriers to setting up sites for summer meals.

“There are federal dollars that reimburse for the food, but not for the infrastructure,” he explained. “Many sites need refrigeration, equipment, and transportation in some cases.”

En pointe

How ballet is energizing one Memphis school — and helped save it from closing

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Briana Brown, an instructor with New Ballet Ensemble, prepares her first-grade dance students for a performance at Dunbar Elementary School in Memphis.

Instructor Briana Brown counts aloud as first-graders in pink leotards skip across a classroom floor to practice their leaps and twirls — a weekly highlight for students at Dunbar Elementary School.

In the South Memphis neighborhood, ballet lessons offered through the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble introduce students to the art of dance at a school with few resources for extracurricular activities.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among 40 students receiving dance instruction at Dunbar Elementary School.

Ten-year-old Briana Davis is among the beneficiaries.

Before joining New Ballet’s class, she danced throughout her mom’s house, just a short walk from Dunbar in the city’s historic African-American community of Orange Mound. Now, Briana is among about 40 Dunbar students who jeté and pirouette in a makeshift classroom studio at Dunbar, or after school in a studio at the group’s headquarters in midtown Memphis.

“I want to keep dancing and to be a dance teacher when I grow up,” Briana said. “I think this is really special. If I hadn’t done ballet at school, I don’t know if I ever would have danced for real and not just at home.”

For eight years, New Ballet Ensemble has been teaching classes at Dunbar and offering scholarships to a talented few to continue their dance education outside of school time. Here under the tutelage of teaching artists who are fluent in classical ballet and other styles of dance, they learn to follow instructions, practice new positions, strengthen young muscles and develop discipline, all while expressing themselves creatively and learning about a world beyond Orange Mound.

But the Memphis dance company’s work has gone far beyond teaching students how to plié and fondu. Thanks to grants that New Ballet helped secure, Dunbar now has a community garden and parent resource center.

And when Dunbar was on the chopping block to be closed this year by Shelby County Schools, New Ballet dancers, instructors and supporters showed up en force at school board meetings. The district later reversed its decision and opted to keep Dunbar open. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson cited community support as a reason for his change of heart.

Katie Smythe founded New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to teach dance, but quickly discovered how her organization’s work was being limited by a dearth of community resources available to public schools in Memphis.

“We came here to find talented kids for dance, but we found that our access to community partnerships and the school board to be the real opportunity point for us,” said Smythe, who also serves as the group’s artistic director. “The school board and administration learned while trying to close this school how valuable community partnerships can be, I think.”

New Ballet became one of the first outside-of-school organizations to have a stake in the Dunbar school community, said Principal Anniece Gentry.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Youngsters giggle as they watch their instructor demonstrate a dance move.

“When students see community partners are invested in their school, they want to achieve more,” Gentry said. “Our relationship with New Ballet is one I will always treasure. They work to do more than anyone else I’ve seen.”

The parent resource center is one of the most valuable additions. Stocked with computers, coffee and books, the room was created for parents with help from a $25,000 grant from ArtsMemphis, a local advocacy and funding group.

“There are computers for parents to use if they don’t have internet at home,” Smythe said. “I’ve seen parents drop their children off, walk to the room and apply for jobs while grabbing a cup of coffee. (For some parents), there was no positive reason for parents to come to school before this, only if their students were sick or in trouble.”

Building parent relationships have become key to New Ballet’s mission at Dunbar, and Smythe wants to take the group’s learnings to other Memphis schools. It’s already helping with arts education in classrooms at Bartlett and Sherwood elementary schools, and Smythe wants to bring Dunbar-style ballet programs to secondary schools that now teach former Dunbar students at Treadwell and Sherwood middle and Melrose and Douglass high.

But that takes money.

New Ballet is dependent on the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency that could experience huge cuts under President Donald Trump’s administration. In addition to $15,000 in NEA funding, the group gets money for its school programs through the Tennessee Arts Commission, which also comes from NEA.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
New Ballet founder Katie Smythe brought ballet to Dunbar Elementary in 2009.

To remind those who hold the pursestrings about educational ballet programs like Dunbar’s, Smythe recently joined other arts advocates to speak with lawmakers in Washington, D.C. Their message: The arts are more than just concert halls, expensive tickets and paintings that people don’t understand. It’s also about helping students to grow mentally, physically and academically.

For students like Briana, support for New Ballet would mean another year of free ballet lessons and after-school programming.

“I really look forward to performing,” Briana said. “Learning to dance is really fun. But being able to show off how much I’ve learned to my mom? That’s the best.”

Emerging partnership

Memphis schools have space. Boys & Girls Clubs have programming. Now they just need money to put clubs in three schools.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
Memphis students show off "cancer awareness" posters they created as part of a Boys & Girls Club program at Promise Academy, a charter school in Raleigh. Three more clubs could open in Memphis schools by 2018.

Grappling with numerous under-enrolled schools and significant neighborhood needs, Memphis school leaders are seeking to fill some empty space by partnering with the Boys & Girls Club.

Shelby County Schools is working with the organization’s Memphis chapter to open clubs by 2018 inside three schools: Dunbar Elementary, Riverview School and Craigmont High.

But first they have to secure about $1 million to pay for the clubs’ first year of operations.

Both entities view the emerging partnership as a way to connect space and programming to strengthen schools and their neighborhoods. The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis also wants to expand beyond its current seven sites.

“It doesn’t make sense to build a $4 or $5 million facility somewhere only to have the population shift due to school closure or neighborhood changes,” said executive director Keith Blanchard. “Suddenly, you have this super nice club and no kids. This way, we can go to where the kids are.”

The partnership would step up the effort of Shelby County Schools to join a national trend in developing community schools, which put facilities to use beyond the traditional school day and emphasize a holistic approach for addressing poverty, health and behavior. The arrangement also would tap into a growth and missional model for the Boys & Girls Club, which has been successful in working with schools in cities such as Orlando.

Blanchard hopes the new Memphis clubs would provide students with an after-school option in schools where extracurriculars are slim, as well as a place to go during summer breaks. Each site could serve up to 240 students.

While the district can provide space and utilities, each site would cost an estimated $330,000 to operate — an expense that district leaders plan to ask the County Commission to cover initially. The long-term goal is to get corporate and donor support.

“The last thing we want to do is open these clubs and have to close in two years,” Blanchard said.

PHOTO: Boys & Girls Club
The Boys & Girls Club operates seven clubs in Memphis.

Under-enrolled school buildings are plentiful in Shelby County Schools, where leaders have closed more than 20 schools since 2012, partially due to low enrollment. At the same time, Memphis school leaders are seeking more resources to serve a disproportionately high number of poor, black and disabled students.

“We are always looking for ways to expose our students to programs/activities that foster good citizenship, character building, and healthy lifestyles that contribute to student success,” a district spokeswoman said in an email this month.

The Boys & Girls Club of Greater Memphis already has one school-based club at Promise Academy, a state-run charter school in Raleigh, where about 60 students attend.

Blanchard said the three newest school sites were chosen because the organization doesn’t have a strong presence in those neighborhoods.

Dunbar Elementary Principal Anniece Gentry said the Orange Mound community would welcome the additional resource.

“There’s not a YMCA or Boys & Girls Club in this area,” Gentry said. “This would be a place not just for students, but for the entire neighborhood, as a way to bring families together. For the students, having structured resources in the afternoon is going to help them to grow even better during the academic school day.”