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.”

one hurdle down

Bill to ban corporal punishment in schools get first approval from Colorado House

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Students at the AXL Academy in Aurora worked in pairs or small groups to solve math problems.

Colorado’s House of Representatives gave initial approval Monday to a bill that would ban corporal punishment in public schools and day care centers that receive state funds.

The bill, sponsored by Denver Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine, would forbid adults from using physical harm as punishment for students.

“It’s not OK for adults to hit each other,” Lontine said. “It should not be OK for adults to hit children — ever.”

Colorado is one of 19 states that has not outlawed the practice. However, reported incidents of corporal punishment are rare.

That’s one reason why some Republicans who disavow corporal punishment still oppose the bill.

“We’ve heard there is not a problem,” said Minority Leader Rep. Patrick Neville, a Douglas County Republican. Schools are “already dealing with this. Let’s let our local school districts do what they’ve been doing.”

Lontine’s bill won bipartisan support from the House Education Committee. Given the Democrats’ wide majority in the House, the bill is expected to win final approval Tuesday. But it’s unclear what sort of reception the bill will receive in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, said he hasn’t read the bill yet. But he said he is always concerned about education policy violating local school districts’ local control.

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.