The Other 60 Percent

Contest sparks school breakfast growth

Before Bell Middle School in Golden started its breakfast program last year, kids would often come to the cafeteria and beg Kitchen Manager Annette Hansen for a bag of chips or another snack before school. Other school staff got similar requests and some started buying granola bars to hand out to hungry students.

Students at Burlington Elementary deliver breakfast for kindergarteners and first-graders. (Photo credit: Burlington Elementary Principal Debbie James)

Hansen says she doesn’t get these requests anymore, thanks to the school’s award-winning breakfast program, which serves about 60 students each morning starting at 7 a.m.

About half of those students come from low-income families.

Bell is one of three Colorado schools that won an “Innovation Award” last month in the School Breakfast Challenge. The contest, now in its second year, is put on by the No Kid Hungry Campaign, a collaboration between Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, Hunger Free Colorado and Share Our Strength.

Stukey Elementary in Westminster and Northridge High School in Greeley also won Innovation Awards for their efforts in 2011-12. All three schools earned $1,000 awards in the contest.

In addition, four school districts won Breakfast Challenge awards ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 for big gains in breakfast participation between April 2010 and April 2011. West Grand and Ridgway won among districts with fewer than 40 percent of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Wray and Burlington won among districts with 40 percent or more of students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Schools and districts around the state are now competing in the second School Breakfast Challenge, which runs until the end of January.  The contest is part of an effort to increase the number of students, particularly low-income students, who eat breakfast at school.

According to Hunger Free Colorado, for every 100 children who ate a free or reduced-price lunch in 2010-2011, only 40 ate school breakfast. In addition, although school breakfast participation has increased somewhat since 2008-2009, Colorado still ranks 44 among all states when comparing the number of school breakfasts per school lunches served.

Breakfast at Bell

On a recent Monday morning, Bell Middle eighth-grader Jalen Lucero stopped to chat on his way out of the cafeteria after breakfast. He said he likes the breakfast food at Bell much more than at his elementary school. He also likes Hansen, who brought in her home stereo system to liven up the cafeteria atmosphere.

“She’s funny. She dances all the time…Me and Mrs. Hansen are buddies,” Jalen said.

Bell’s breakfast program began as a project of the school’s Interact Club, which is a youth affiliate of the Golden Rotary Club.

Students eating breakfast in the Bell Middle School cafeteria.

Bell Principal Bridget Jones said of the Interact students, “They wanted to help make our school a thriving place and they knew some kids were not eating breakfast.”

About 35 percent of Bell’s 511 students receive free or reduced-price lunches this year, up from 17 percent six years ago.

The logistics were intimidating.

Students arrived on 13 buses every morning. There were concerns about how to accommodate students on late buses, who would provide before-school supervision and even where students would enter the building so they could access the cafeteria. Jones had her doubts, but said students and staff worked to overcome all the obstacles.

The Golden Rotary Club donated $500 for the kick-off breakfast, which was free for all students. Normally, students who are not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch pay $1.75 to eat breakfast at school.

Eighth-graders Ryan Houle and Leo Garcia shared their thoughts about the breakfast program over egg sandwiches and chocolate milk as the sounds of pop music drifted in from Hansen’s kitchen stereo. Houle said the program gives him a chance to eat if he doesn’t have enough time for it at home.

Leo Garcia, who’d just arrived after walking the 15 minutes from home in 12-degree weather, said he likes the warmth of the cafeteria. He also recalled feeling “pretty tired” when he neglected to eat breakfast last year as a seventh-grader. Without breakfast, Houle said, “It feels like you’re empty…You keep on thinking about how you’re hungry.”

The Burlington experience

Hunger was also evident at Burlington Elementary School before the school leadership team kicked off a program incorporating breakfast in the classroom and fitness activities last school year.

“We felt like we had lots of kids that were complaining about their tummies hurting or being lethargic in the morning,” said Principal Debbie James.

With leadership from the school’s physical education teacher, Burlington Elementary applied for and received a $2,230 grant plus nearly $1,800 worth of in-kind donations from Fuel Up to Play 60, a collaboration of the National Dairy Association, the NFL and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Armed with a new milk cooler, insulated bags and some red wagons to help the youngest students transport the food to their classrooms, Burlington began its universal free breakfast program last January. Soon, 87 percent of the 280 K-4 students were eating breakfast as soon as they got to school. James said the school had implemented a before-school breakfast program seven or eight years ago, but participation was low. At Burlington, 64 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Teachers have noticed a difference since the breakfast program began, said James. Besides a reduction in obviously hungry kids, the number of tardy students has decreased. In addition, for those who are still tardy, the number of minutes they are late has decreased.

Parents and students have an incentive to arrive on time or close to it, said James, since breakfast in the classroom ends at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after classes begin.

Now, students show up to eat ready to learn.

Poverty in America

Woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant Memphis schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 860 Memphis students were considered homeless in 2016, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.