starting the day right

Some parents question health of school breakfast, but change is slow

One of the products served in Denver's "breakfast in the classroom" program.

The “Frudel,” a pastry with apple or cherry filling, is not the only food that has rankled a group of Denver Public Schools parents — but it may be the best example of what they say are an excess of sugary, processed foods served through the district’s expanding breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

The Frudels have 11 grams of sugar and are served warm inside blue plastic wrappers emblazoned with a smiling Pillsbury Dough Boy. Parents describe how some of the children in the Pre-K classroom jump up and down with excitement on Frudel day, gobbling up school breakfast even after parents take pains to serve a full breakfast at home. They say the food is placed within easy reach of the four-year-olds, so it’s almost inevitable that children take it even if they’ve already eaten or their parents want them to pass.

“I’ve been seeing the gooeyness and dessertiness of the things being served in my child’s classroom,” said Anne Davis, whose daughter attends the central Denver elementary school where about eight parents have raised concerns. (The parents didn’t want the name used for fear it would reflect negatively on the school.) “It’s the perfect kid junk food.”

In addition to worries about spiking blood sugar and subsequent behavior problems, parents are frustrated by their children’s untouched lunches and a sudden new interest in junk food.

And while the parents who have raised concerns are financially secure, they say the low-income children that breakfast-in-the classroom programs are designed to feed are not well-served either.

“Nutritionally it fails, and then as far as equaling out the playing field for kids. It’s putting them more at a disadvantage than helping them,” said Heather Ramirez, whose son is in a Pre-K class at the school. “It’s disadvantaging the disadvantaged.”

Currently, about 60 Denver schools, many with large majorities of low-income students, offer breakfast in the classroom, which is free to all students. Others will add the program next fall when Colorado’s new “Breakfast After the Bell” law takes effect. The law, signed last May, will require schools where 80 percent or more students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals to offer breakfast after the official start of the school day. The 80 percent threshold will drop to 70 percent starting in the 2015-16 school year.

The recent complaints about breakfast in the classroom highlight the complicated logistics of the program, which requires everything from months-in-advance food bids to the daily delivery of thousands of meals to individual classrooms via trucks and insulated coolers.

The concerns also illustrate the push and pull between what kids will eat and what adults want them to eat.

Theresa Hafner, executive director of enterprise management for DPS, said parent opinions on food offerings are important. But, she said, “if the kids don’t eat it we’re not accomplishing our mission.”

A DPS staff member from the nutrition services department is set to meet with concerned parents in early March. For some of them, the problem with school breakfast is not purely nutritional. It’s about the message schools are sending to kids about what is good for them.

“Educationally speaking, it’s teaching some really bad food habits,” said Davis.

Several outside observers agree that the parents have valid concerns and are not alone in their frustration, but they also note that the DPS has been a leader in adopting scratch cooking in school cafeterias and making other healthy changes, particularly in the lunch program.

“DPS has a reputation for really being committed to improving their school meal program,” said Carol Muller, regional field manager for Colorado Action for Healthy Kids. “There is no quick answer to this. It is a long process.”

A closer look at the food

Besides the Frudels, parents have questioned DPS breakfast foods like Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, glazed French toast, apple juice, and pre-packaged apple slices that are sometimes mealy. Not only do breakfasts generally include too much sugar and too many preservatives, parents say they include too few protein items and non-processed fruits and vegetables.

In addition, they say sometimes items like cheese sticks or yogurt are listed on school menus but do not show up in the classroom. Hafner said published menu items should be present but are occasionally absent because the product was recalled, the vendor ran out or a district manager made a mistake.

While DPS breakfast foods and ensembles all adhere to federal rules governing school meals, those rules do not require protein products or limit sugar specifically. They do require milk, one to two grain products and a half cup of fruit product each day. They also set minimum and maximum calorie amounts, limit saturated fat and prohibit transfat.

School breakfast resources

“It’s odd to me that there’s not a protein requirement for breakfast,” said Jeremy West, nutrition service director for Weld County District 6.

Cost is the main reason, said Anjali Budhiraja, public affairs specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services in the Mountain Plains region. When the new rules, which took effect last summer, were under consideration many food service directors commented that a protein requirement would make their breakfast programs too expensive.

Ann Pierce, a nutritionist who Ramirez knows, reviewed a week’s worth of school breakfasts based on a photographic log the concerned parents put together. The log included nutritional information for some items.

“It’s not terrible for what I’d expect from a public school, but it’s not great either,” said Pierce, who runs Pierce Whole Nutrition. Pierce said pastries, sugar cereals and juice are all worth eliminating from school breakfast menus, but she was happy to see fruit and sunflower seed butter on the menu sometimes.

“Sun butter is great. That’s a really good food to have in there,” she said.

The irony is that both parents and DPS food service staff agree that students don’t generally like the sun butter and often throw it out. Hafner said it is included because the prevalence of peanut allergies means peanut butter is off limits.

Menu additions that Pierce proposes include hard-boiled eggs, breakfast burritos with vegetables and beans, or even hummus and carrot sticks. Hafner said the district has served hard-boiled eggs as part of its after-school snack program and will consider doing so for breakfast. In addition, the district is currently testing a bean and cheese burrito, an egg and cheese pita and a “breakfast pizza.”

What other districts offer

Food service directors around the state consistently say hot scratch-cooked items are a tall order when it comes to breakfast in the classroom. Not only do they take time to make, package and deliver, proper temperature control throughout the distribution process can be tricky.

West said his district, which has 17 schools with classroom breakfast, offers a scratch-made hot entrée once a week on Fridays. His team starts preparing the Friday item, either a breakfast burrito or an egg and cheese sandwich, on Wednesday.

“It just takes time to do that,” he said.

West said districts seeking to offer hot breakfasts more frequently almost have to use more processed items. Currently, Weld 6 serves cold items, including cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks and breakfast bars, Monday through Thursday.

In Denver, the cinnamon roll, which is sweetened with apple sauce, is the only scratch-made item served during the three-week breakfast menu cycle. Time constraints are part of it. The other part, Hafner explained, is that a student survey last year indicated that items like scratch-made muffins were unpopular. Only 22 percent of students rated them “good,” whereas Frudels earned 66 percent approval.

In the Boulder Valley School district, which has breakfast in the classroom at four schools, the one weekly hot item is a breakfast burrito made by EVOL, which uses no artificial flavors, colors, preservatives or fillers. The rest of the week, the district serves items like bagels and cream cheese, muffins from Udi’s bakery, cheese sticks, yogurt, and cereals like multi-grain Chex.

“We’re not buying the Frudels, the Pop Tarty things,” said Ann Cooper, the district’s director of food services. “The cereals we use are very low sugar.”

Hafner said DPS doesn’t serve cereal with more than six grams of sugar. To compare, a serving of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran has 18 grams of sugar and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has three grams of sugar.

In Jefferson County, which offers classroom breakfast at eight schools this year, items served include mini pancakes, mini waffles, breakfast burritos, pigs in a blanket, banana or zucchini bread, fresh fruit cut up by kitchen staff, and unsweetened apple sauce. None of the entrée items are scratch cooked.

Linda Stoll, the district’s executive director of Food and Nutrition Services, said just because food comes prepackaged, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.

“There are different perspectives on what is healthy out there,” she said.

The next step

School food service directors, including Hafner, say parents can and should express their concerns to staff. Hafner noted that some of the problems cited by parents, including that breakfasts are placed on central tables or counters, don’t stem from food service dictates, but are simply classroom-level or school-level decisions.

As for issues directly related to the food service department, change probably won’t happen overnight.

“They may have a warehouse full of the stuff they’re serving now,” said Muller.

Bureaucratic procedures can also hinder rapid change. Stoll said she is already in the middle of the formal bid process for food purchases next year. That means by this spring, she will have many of next year’s meal items set. While re-bids are possible, she said it’s a time-consuming process.

“Parents sometimes think the food service director hasn’t listened, but that’s not true,” she said. “You can’t turn the Titanic on a dime.”

Hafner and others also say it’s imperative to strike a balance between healthy foods and foods kids like.

“You can’t get so healthy, they’re not going to eat something,” said West, who has led his district through a transition to mostly scratch cooking in the last few years.

He knows from personal experience that it takes time for kids to accept homemade foods when they’re familiar with processed food at school, and perhaps at home. He said when Weld District 6 quit using dehydrated potato flakes and began mashing red potatoes with the skin on, students were not happy.

“They were like, ‘What’s in that?’” he said. “For the first year, my elementary students just kind of looked at them on the plate.”

Now they love them, he said. It may be an argument for patience and baby steps as breakfast in the classroom evolves. And for concerned parents, that may be a palatable solution.

“They need to tweak the food,” said Ramirez. “I don’t think they need…to get rid of it.”

student discipline

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Shelby County educators list their reactions to students who act out as part of a discipline training on using restorative justice techniques in the classroom.

Taking a cue from Nashville, Memphis school leaders are working to change the way their educators discipline students in an effort to reduce the high rate of suspensions in Shelby County Schools.

This month, about a hundred educators participated in a day-long training session to learn about restorative justice techniques already used in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. The Nashville district, which like Memphis serves mostly minority and low-income students, has seen its suspension rate drop since incorporating the disciplinary approach more broadly in 2014.

“Our goal is to help teachers and administrators see all of the steps they could take before suspension or expulsion. Keeping a student out of the classroom should be a last resort,” said Eric Johnson, the lead trainer and head of youth development for STARS, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization.

The training, conducted in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, is part of the culture shift that’s been building for more than a year as Shelby County Schools seeks to move away from exclusionary practices such as suspensions and expulsions, said Randy McPherson, who oversees school culture and climate for Tennessee’s largest district.

It’s also a far cry from corporal punishment, which the district did away with some 15 years ago.

“There’s this idea that punishment should be immediate. You act out of line, you get suspended. That’s not what our students need,” McPherson said.

Restorative justice is relational and seeks to foster an environment of caring and respect. In order to get at the root cause behind misbehavior, it begins with educators taking into account the backgrounds and experiences that students bring to school, sometimes including hunger, domestic violence or homelessness.

Memphis is working to catch up with cities like Nashville, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles that already are bringing together students to talk out conflict. Suspensions there are on the decline, although there’s little research to show whether embracing such techniques reduces school violence and benefits students in the long run.


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District leaders acknowledge that changes are needed in Shelby County, where suspension rates are some of the highest in the state and disproportionately skew high for boys of color. During community meetings last fall about how to build better schools, parents also made it clear that the district should prioritize school climate, which includes how students are disciplined.

About two-thirds of district schools have sent some educators to either an in-house session about restorative practices or one co-presented with Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that works with teachers and students in Memphis. McPherson is hopeful to get that number up to 100 percent during summer trainings.

Then comes the even harder part: Getting the schools to buy in to using restorative justice practices every day.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Randy McPherson (middle) oversees school culture and climate for Shelby County Schools.

“The culture-changing process requires investment, energy and professional development,” McPherson said. “I really believe this approach to discipline works if the whole school is buying into it. If you only pay lip service to the idea, it can actually do more harm than good.”

For now, McPherson is overseeing the shift in discipline that previously was shepherded by Heidi Ramirez, who resigned in February as chief of academics. Her replacement has not yet been named.

“We will continue to focus on key strategies for improving school climate, reducing disruptive behaviors that impact academic progress and prepare students for making good choices,” McPherson said.

At this month’s restorative justice training, educators said they liked the direction that Shelby County Schools is heading — but that more trainings will be essential to lowering the district’s suspension rates.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” said Brian Clark, a family engagement specialist at Grandview Middle School. “… We’re realizing we can’t handle every child the same way. We have to hear their stories and struggles and respond.”

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.”