Healthy Schools

School breakfast economics add up

Members of the Adams City High School Student Council earned $200 to help defray Homecoming expenses last fall, and they did it during school hours without having to sell a single candy bar.

Fruit and yogurt baskets are one of the classroom breakfast options in Denver.

They earned the money by spending a few minutes before class each morning for two weeks delivering breakfast to their classmates.

What’s more, ROTC has done it. The football team has done it. The cheerleaders have done it.

Delivering healthy breakfasts – as opposed to selling junk food – has become a valued fundraising activity at the school, thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking by school officials.

It’s not just student clubs who are benefiting from the Adams 14 School District’s decision last year to make breakfast universally available to all students, for free, during their first class of the day.

Increasing numbers of school officials throughout Colorado are concluding that free breakfast-in-the-classroom programs not only make good sense nutritionally, they make good sense financially and academically as well.

Weighing the costs of free breakfast for all

The financial benefits of universal free breakfast outweigh the costs if at least 40 percent of students at a given school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, officials say.

The key is getting students to actually eat breakfast, which is difficult – even when it’s free – when it’s served in the cafeteria before classes begin.

Schools who have moved breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom have seen sales triple to quadruple to quintuple. They’ve gone from serving a handful of hungry kids willing to confront the social stigma of eating in the cafeteria before class to making breakfast a part of the school culture, enjoyed by all, including the adults.

Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America and a consultant to school districts trying to heathfully transform their meal programs, encourages school officials to do the math. She’s created a “Breakfast Bucks” worksheet to help schools determine if this is a financial winner for them.

Schools with significant numbers of low-income students are reimbursed $1.80 per meal for students who qualify for free lunch, $1.50 per meal for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch, and 27 cents for all other students. With an average per plate food-cost of 80 cents, there’s money to be made by pushing breakfast.

“Significant enhancement to a food service department’s revenue can be generated by breakfast-in-the-classroom programs,” she said. “It’s simple, it’s affordable and it doesn’t make a mess.”

Colorado still lags behind other states, despite progress

Katherine Moos, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, says that organization’s goal is to see 130,000 Colorado youngsters eating school breakfast by 2015.

“We are 44th in the number of students who qualify for free breakfast who actually eat it.”

Last year, following a concerted effort to boost school breakfasts, it was up 29 percent over the year before, to 108,000.

But Colorado continues to lag behind most states.

“We are 44th in the number of students who qualify for free breakfast who actually eat it,” Moos said.

Yet she believes the benefits to schools who do increase the number of breakfasts served can be astounding.

“One school in Aurora who implemented a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in April reported their school nurse visits dropped 50 percent. Another Aurora school reported many less behavior problems,” Moos said.

Trend now toward serving high schools

One trend in particular that Moos is seeing is implementing breakfast-in-the-classroom at the high school level. Feeding teenagers – especially in the morning – brings its own particular set of challenges not faced by elementary schools, but Moos and others are convinced it’s a path most high schools will eventually travel.

Wheeled breakfast carts make it possible to serve breakfast to 950 students at Pueblo's Centennial High School in less than 10 minutes.

Pueblo’s Centennial High School has become a national model for breakfast-in-the-classroom. After it launched its program last August, the number of students eating breakfast went from 50 to 950, practically overnight.

At Centennial, food service workers load up a fleet of breakfast carts, which become mobile serving lines. Each cart serves four to five classes.

“We push the cart to the door and say ‘Breakfast!’ and the students come out, circle the cart, and pick up their items,” said Jill Kidd, director of food services for Pueblo City Schools. “As they do, we count them. It only takes a minute or two, and they go right on with the learning process.”

The entire school gets fed in about 10 minutes, she said. Kidd feels that’s an incredibly smart way to invest 10 minutes out of the day.

  • Read an article in USA Today profiling Centennial High School’s breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

“About 50 percent of all kids on any given day haven’t eaten,” she said. “You can offer them the best curriculum and the best teaching techniques and they won’t learn a thing because they’re asleep, their stomach hurts, and their attention span is shorter. The principal at Centennial understands the benefits of that 10 minutes, to let the students eat while they continue to teach.”

Experience has taught Kidd not to try serving breakfast to teenagers before 8:30 a.m.

“Before then, the kids aren’t awake, and they’re just not into breakfast,” she said. “If we try to serve before 8:30, participation will be about 50 percent lower, even when we take breakfast to them.”

After 14 years, breakfast in Adams 14 finally takes off

The Adams 14 School District, which includes Commerce City, has offered free breakfast to all for the past 14 years. But only when it began offering breakfast in every classroom in all its schools, beginning last year, did the district see significant numbers of students partaking.

Learn more

“We were serving maybe 20 percent of our kids, and now we’re serving 95 percent,” said Cindy Veney, manager of nutrition services for the district. “It really has financially benefited the district. I see it as a win/win situation all the way around.”

The district’s nutrition services department has gone from being a break-even operation to running about $600,000 in the black. The extra cash has allowed Veney to pay students to deliver the breakfasts to the classrooms.

Student clubs sign up for breakfast delivery duty for up to two weeks at a time. Club members come early, meet in the cafeteria, and pick up breakfast coolers to distribute to every classroom. In exchange, they’re paid $20 a day. They complete their delivery rounds before the first bell sounds, so they don’t miss class.

With this easy money-making option, clubs no longer have to sell candy bars to raise funds for projects.

“Obviously, it takes the football team less time to deliver the breakfasts than it takes the six-member student council, but they know that in advance,” said Veney.

In addition, students from the high schools’ Like Skills classes for developmentally challenged students earn money retrieving the coolers and washing them out.

“Yes, we’ve had some waste,” Veney said. “We’ve had to purchase some different foods to find something everyone likes, and we’ve worked with our custodial staff and teachers to appease everyone. But it’s working well.”

Veney, too, has seen impacts other than simply financial.

“There have been days the nurses have come out and said ‘Do we have kids in school today?’ Because they no longer have a line of kids out the door with tummy aches and headaches. They don’t see that anymore. Kids are starting their days much more smoothly. And discipline problems are down.”

Experts says breakfast in the classroom also increases attendance and decreases tardiness.

“It’s fascinating to me when principals say they don’t have time to serve breakfast in the classroom every day, but they certainly make sure kids get fed on CSAP day,” Adamick said. “Does that make sense? Kids are happy when we feed them.”

Suggestions for school districts on saving money on school meals

Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America and a consultant to school districts, is a proponent of avoiding processed foods in favor of less-expensive items that allow local cooks to cook meals from scratch. But beyond avoiding processed foods, there are other ways schools can cut back on meal-related expenses without cutting back on the quality of food. Among her suggestions:

  • Avoid individually wrapped portions whenever possible. Districts must pay for those wrappers, and for the labor it takes to wrap each serving.
  • Individual condiment packets costs 2 to 8 cents apiece. Districts can save a tremendous amount of money buying condiments in bulk and putting them in squeeze jars.
  • Canned beans cost 6 cents per serving more than dried beans.
  • This is controversial, but a serving of flavored milk typically costs a half to two cents more per serving than unflavored milk. Additionally, milk served in plastic containers costs 5 to 8 cents more than that served in old-fashioned carboard cartons.
  • Don’t waste money on desserts that you could spend contracting with a local farmer to supply fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit the number of entrees offered.
  • Use washables rather than disposables. The initial investment might be more, but in the long run you’ll save money, and you’ll be providing a local employee with work washing dishes rather than sending the money to a far-off factory that produces disposables.
  • Take inventory regularly. In fact, have the kitchen staff at different schools cross-inventory each other’s kitchens. You’ll get more accurate counts.

Read Kate Adamick’s article in The Atlantic on food processing costs associated with the USDA commodity foods program.

red zone

Traffic pollution: an invisible health risk for dozens of Denver schools

PHOTO: Google Maps - Street View
Interstate 70 is clearly visible from the playground outside Swansea Elementary School in Denver.

Just a few hundred feet from the front doors of Highline Academy Charter School’s southeast Denver campus is Interstate 25, where more than 200,000 vehicles rush by each day.

At Swansea Elementary School in north Denver, kids frolic near the busy Interstate 70 overpass that abuts the playground. Three miles west, at a charter school called STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside, the same highway looms just past a chain link fence next to the school.

The three schools are among 29 in Denver Public Schools — 10 of them charters — that sit near high-traffic roads and the invisible air pollution those routes generate daily. Experts say such pollution can stunt lung development, aggravate asthma and contribute to heart disease, but there’s little public awareness about the problem and mitigation efforts are sparse.

A new online mapping tool, part of a joint investigative project by two nonprofit news organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, puts the issue in stark relief. Residents across Colorado and the nation can easily check which schools fall into red zones where traffic volume, and the accompanying air pollution, is worst, and orange zones where traffic volume is lower, but still potentially problematic for kids and staff who may spend long hours at their schools.

PHOTO: Center for Public Integrity and Reveal
This screen shot of the mapping tool shows Highline Academy’s proximity to Interstate 25 with a blue pin.

The Center for Public Integrity provided Chalkbeat with raw data for schools with Denver addresses. While most were DPS schools, a couple dozen were schools in neighboring districts, including Cherry Creek, Aurora, Westminster, Mapleton, Sheridan and Jefferson County.

Eleven DPS schools — educating more than 8,000 students — fell into the red zone, which means they sit within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average. Those include charters such as Highline and Strive Prep – Sunnyside, and traditional public schools such as Swansea and Steele elementaries and George Washington, Lincoln and East high schools.

Another 18 district schools, plus one in the Cherry Creek district and one in the Adams 12 district, fall into the orange zone, which includes schools that are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles and more than 500 trucks daily. The 18 DPS schools include two additional STRIVE – Prep locations, two schools inside the downtown administration building and the district’s magnet school for students designated as highly gifted: Polaris at Ebert Elementary.

DPS officials say air pollution resulting from schools’ proximity to busy roadways hasn’t been discussed previously and that mitigation measures — such as high-grade air filters — aren’t in place at most affected schools.

“We haven’t had this conversation before,” said district spokeswoman Alex Renteria.

Sometimes schools end up near busy roadways because that’s where districts can buy cheap land. But population growth, development trends and major transportation projects can also dramatically change the fabric of a school neighborhood. Swansea Elementary, for example, was built in 1957, before I-70 sliced through north Denver in the 1960s.

The problem of traffic-related air pollution near schools is not exclusive to big cities like Denver. It can be found in suburban and rural areas around the state and the rest of the country. Many school districts across Colorado — from Montrose to Steamboat Springs to Greeley — have at least one school within 500 feet of high-traffic routes.

Charters harder hit

The investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal, which looked at trends nationwide, found that charter schools are more likely than traditional public schools to be located close to busy roads.
That’s true in Denver, where 22 percent of the district’s charter schools were located near a busy road during the 2014-15 school year, compared to 13 percent of other district schools. Nationwide, about 9 percent of schools are near busy roads, according to the analysis.

Officials at the most impacted Denver charter schools had little to say about the issue of traffic pollution.

Christine Ferris, executive director of Highline Academy, wrote in an email: “We can’t really do much about our location and although it would be obvious to anyone who visits us, having the information highlighted on Chalkbeat isn’t my favorite idea.”

She canceled a subsequent interview with Chalkbeat.

Chyrise Harris, senior director of communications and marketing for the STRIVE Prep charter group, said via email, “STRIVE Prep operates all of its schools in district facilities and works collaboratively with the district to ensure that all students, regardless of where they live, have access to a safe, high quality school near them.”

Jessica Johnson, general counsel and director of policy for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said in growing cities like Denver there’s limited inventory when it comes to school sites. Charter schools may end up along high-traffic routes because that’s where the chartering district has vacant space and also because such roads provide needed proximity to bus or train stops.

Of the 10 Denver charter schools near busy roads, seven are in district-owned buildings. The three that aren’t are Highline, Cesar Chavez Academy and Justice High School.

While Johnson said being close to busy roads is a fact of life for urban charter schools, she noted the impact of traffic-related air pollution is an important health and wellness issue — one that hasn’t been on the charter community’s radar.

“This isn’t an issue that we’ve seen a lot of research into locally or a lot of conversation on,” she said.

Mitigation measures

Vehicle exhaust contains a variety of harmful components, including small particles, carbon monoxide and carcinogenic compounds. While outdoor areas like school playgrounds and sports fields pose an obvious risk, the air inside buildings can suffer, too, because particles, vapors and gases often seep inside.
High-grade air filters — those rated MERV 16 — can make a big difference. According to the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal investigation, MERV 16 filters installed in California schools caught about 90 percent of fine and ultrafine particles, which are key contributors to traffic-related health problems.

Denver schools use lower-grade filters, those rated either MERV 8 or MERV 10, according to district officials.

Air-conditioning can also help somewhat, allowing schools to keep some pollution at bay by shutting doors and windows in hot weather. Of the 29 DPS schools most impacted by roadway pollution, only four don’t have at least partial air-conditioning. Those are Valverde and Steele elementaries, Polaris at Ebert Elementary and STRIVE Prep – Sunnyside. While a handful of the 29 schools will get additional air-conditioning with funds from Denver’s recent voter-approved bond, those four are not on the list.

Swansea Elementary, the second most impacted Denver school after the southeast Highline Academy location, will be getting short-term and likely longer-term relief from traffic pollution.

Renteria said as part of a project underway now, the school is getting a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system that will include MERV 16 filters. It will also get new doors and windows.

Additionally, a planned highway widening project will convert the current overpass next to Swansea to a covered below-grade route. Research from the Environmental Protection Agency suggests vehicle emissions are lower near below-grade roads with steep walls. The same is true for routes with certain kinds of sound barriers or roadside vegetation.

The city will monitor air quality on Swansea’s grounds during and after construction.

Here is the list of schools classified as “red” or “orange:”

Red Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
Highline Academy (southeast) Denver charter
Swansea Elementary School Denver
STRIVE PREP – Sunnyside Denver charter
Compassion Road Academy Denver
Steele Elementary School Denver
George Washington High School Denver
Respect Academy at Lincoln Denver
Abraham Lincoln High School Denver
College View Elementary School Denver
Valverde Elementary School Denver
East High School Denver

These “red zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 30,000 vehicles a day on average.

Orange Zone Schools

SCHOOL DISTRICT CHARTER STATUS
STRIVE Prep – Federal Denver charter
Columbian Elementary School Denver
Denver Center for International Studies Denver
Colfax Elementary School Denver
Cheltenham Elementary School Denver
The Odyssey School Denver charter
Contemporary Learning Academy Denver
STRIVE Prep – Ruby Hill Denver charter
Cesar Chavez Academy Denver charter
Girls Athletic Leadership School Denver charter
Bruce Randolph School Denver
Downtown Denver Expeditionary School Denver charter
Emily Griffith Technical College Denver
Dora Moore ECE-8 School Denver
Justice High School Denver charter
Polaris at Ebert Elementary School Denver
Bromwell Elementary School Denver
Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning Denver charter
Challenge School Cherry Creek
North Star Elementary School Adams 12

These “orange zone” schools are within 500 feet of roads carrying more than 10,000 vehicles a day and more than 500 trucks on average.

SCOTUS on IDEA

U.S. Supreme Court, in landmark decision, strengthens rights for students with disabilities

In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.

Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.

The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.

The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.

While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.

In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.

“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:

“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities.  We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program  must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’  We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”

The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.