First Person

Online menu helps food-allergic kids

Add this to the list of challenges youngsters with severe food allergies have to put up with – getting to the school lunchroom and discovering that there’s nothing  on the menu they can safely eat.

Colorado Springs schools, like many school districts, is moving toward healthier meals, such as this teriyaki chicken with brown rice entree.

Jamie Humphrey, administrative dietician with Colorado Springs School District 11, knows that’s happened to kids. And while the district always offers a “gluten-free special of the day” for students with special dietary needs, that doesn’t always accommodate the range of students’ food allergies.

Some youngsters simply always must bring lunch from home. But some parents fear that children who never get to go through the lunch line feel left out, and they want schools to do better at ensuring allergic children always have at least some choices available.

A Denver company, Gipsee, which makes a variety of technology products for restaurants to accommodate patrons with food allergies, has teamed with the District 11 to provide a similar service to students.

System gets positive response

The AllerSchool system debuted in Colorado Springs this fall and, so far, it’s gotten good reviews from parents and food service officials.

It works like this: Parents of a child with severe food allergies register their child with the district’s Food & Nutrition Services. When they do, they’re given an identifying code that’s used to log into the district’s weekly menu website, allowing parents to see what will be served at each school each day and the exact ingredients in each menu item.

Michaela Sawyckyj, 7, dines on a special gluten-free meal provided for her by her school, Martinez Elementary in Colorado Springs.

Parents can screen for certain items – common allergens such as dairy or nuts or wheat or for more exotic allergens – and feel confident that whatever items pass the screen will be safe for their child. If there’s little or nothing on a given day’s menu that a food-allergic child can safely eat, parents can order a special meal for their child.

“It’s usually something made with gluten-free bread and may not be a super-desirable item for the kids,” acknowledged Humphrey.

“But it does allow our students to eat more regular meals. Before, it was difficult. They might look out our menu and say ‘There’s nothing I can eat.’ This way, there’s no question at all. Parents have all the information at their fingertips, and with each child having a customized profile it takes away all the guesswork. … They know it will be safe.”

For Sheila Sawyckyj, mother of a first-grader with Celiac disease, the AllerSchool system has been a huge gift.

“She knows when she’s being left out,” she said of daughter Michaela, a student at Martinez Elementary School in Colorado Springs. “We warned her she would need to take her own lunch, but she saw other kids eating at school and she wanted to be like the other kids.”

Her daughter’s illness makes it difficult for her to eat products containing gluten. Many popular entrees served at school, such as pizza and spaghetti, have some gluten. But the sides – fruits and vegetables – usually do not. “So for her, it’s pretty easy,” Sawyckyj said.

Once a month, Sawyckyj goes online to check the upcoming school menus, and order a special meal for Michaela on the days needed. Michaela doesn’t care much for the gluten-free sandwiches the school offers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so on those days she usually brings her lunch. But Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the gluten-free option is taco salad or hamburgers on gluten-free bread, she goes through the lunch line.

“She’s like a different child on those days,” Sawyckyj said. “She’s happier on lunch line days. She gets more independence. She likes being able to go through the lunch line, and there’s nothing on the salad bar that can be cross-contaminated. Michaela feels secure, and she feels she has the chance to just be one of the kids. She doesn’t feel different.”

Product inspired by daughter’s experiences

Denver businessman Dilip Chopra understands Sawyckyj’s stress in trying to balance her daughter’s special needs with the emotional need to fit in. He’s the co-founder of Gipsee – and the father of a food-allergic daughter.

Learn more

“Our product was inspired by my own situation with my daughter,” he said. “She’s a senior in high school now, but throughout her growing-up years she’s had food allergies, and she could never eat in the school cafeteria. Whenever we would ask about the ingredients in the menu items, we could never get an answer. The ingredients were always changing.”

The one-time owner of a health food store, Chopra recruited a tech-savvy colleague to write the program that became AllerSchool.

District 11 is the only district to adopt AllerSchool to date, but Chopra hopes to expand it. The cost is modest: $10 to $20 per school per month. For that amount, Gipsee codes all the necessary data to show exactly which ingredients are in a given menu item.

Humphrey said an added benefit to the AllerSchool program is the extra transparency it’s given school lunchrooms as the district moves toward more scratch-based cooking.

“It’s helped us analyze our menus, break them down and see what the foods are that we should consider eliminating,” she said. “We can say we’re making all these great changes, but this allows parents to look and see for themselves. They can see, ‘This is homemade meatloaf, and it doesn’t have all these chemicals.’ I think this is really going to take off.”

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.