Lunch Line

Outspoken student, burned sandwich and frozen fruit spur meal changes in southwest Denver

PHOTO: Padres y Jóvenes Unidos
This lunch was served at Kepner Middle School on May 12. Descriptions were added by the Padres employee who received the lunch. (The chicken patties are pre-cooked by the vendor, but DPS officials said sometimes there are red spots in the meat that lead people to believe the meat is undercooked.)

The story didn’t start with the burned sandwich bun or the still-frozen strawberries on the lunch tray at Kepner Middle School in Southwest Denver. It started months earlier with a slow simmer of dissatisfaction over the quality of the school’s food.

But when that meal was served on May 12 during a lunch visit by school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, a district administrator, and representatives from Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, it perfectly captured the ongoing complaints: Food wasn’t prepared properly, some items ran out before the end of lunch, and there weren’t enough choices.

It was a Kepner student named Stephanie Torres, speaking about Padres’ health justice platform, who helped sound the alarm about such problems at a school board meeting in April. Her remarks spurred plans for the lunchtime visit by district officials. The visit, while coordinated in advance by central administrators, was not announced to Kepner’s kitchen manager or principal.

Monica Acosta, lead health justice organizer at Padres, went along on the visit and snapped a photo of her lunch tray.

“It was heartbreaking. That’s the type of food Kepner students have been having all year long,” she said.

In the last three weeks, Torres, Acosta, and others who participated in the lunch visit have reported positive changes in Kepner’s cafeteria.

Questions or comments about DPS meals?
Contact: Theresa Pena
Regional Coordinator for Outreach and Engagement
720-423-5657
THERESA_PENA@dpsk12.org

There’s no more frozen fruit or expired milk, and there are more hot entrée choices. Next year, there are plans to put Kepner on a different meal model that will increase daily hot entrée offerings from four to six, in line with most other middle schools.

“We’re very thankful those changes were implemented immediately,” said Acosta.

She said officials from the DPS nutrition services department have twice met with Padres representatives, including parents from Kepner and other district schools where complaints have surfaced.

“It’s definitely on the right track,” she said.

Navigating a bureaucracy

By most accounts, the changes at Kepner represent a win, but they also raise questions about what caused the problems in the first place, how pervasive meal complaints are in the district, and what mechanisms exist for students and parents to air their concerns about school food.

Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member and now a district employee, said the nutrition services department is willing to have conversations with students, parents and school personnel about food. In fact, that’s a large part of her new job as the department’s regional coordinator for outreach and engagement.

If there are concerns, she said, “we are absolutely willing to do something different.”

"The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety."

Still, she agreed that in a bureaucracy like DPS, which serves nearly 80,000 meals at 185 schools a day, it’s not always clear to students or parents whom to approach when there’s a problem. Closing that “communication gap” represents a big opportunity for the department, she said.

There’s been talk about putting kitchen manager’s photos and contact information up in school cafeterias and bringing parents on behind-the-scenes kitchen tours. Currently, the district seeks feedback about school food through student surveys conducted at three mobile food service kiosks. Peña also plans to work with the district’s student board of education to solicit feedback.

“The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety,” said Peña.

A varied landscape

The problems at Kepner represent a distinct contrast with what multiple observers say is an upward trajectory for meal program quality districtwide.

About five years ago, DPS began moving away from a menu of processed foods to majority scratch cooking. (Both Kepner’s kitchen manager and another employee there have participated in scratch cooking training.)

The district is also well-known for its robust school farm program, which provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce to school kitchens every year. In addition, all district schools have salad bars.

“DPS is really doing some great things,” said Rainey Wikstrom, a healthy school consultant and DPS parent. “I would say one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole barrel.”

Still, it’s not clear why the burned bun–ironically one of the district’s scratch-made baked goods—or the frosty strawberries were served on May 12.

“In any large district there’s always going to be a difference between the best intentions of the central office and what actually happens in schools,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for LiveWell Colorado.

While Peña agreed the bun should have been thrown out, she said the Kepner kitchen, like others across the district, has struggled with short staffing throughout the year. She recalled that the workers were barely keeping up when she went through the lunch line herself that day.

Wikstrom said when she recently read a job posting for a school kitchen manager, it hit her hard how much is expected for a relatively low wage.

“We don’t pay our food service staff well…We need to offer them more support and more financial support,” she said.

As for the reason that Kepner students had few entree choices for most of this year, that’s because the school’s kitchen provides meals to a nearby district preschool as well and therefore followed a K-8 menu model. That model includes fewer daily choices than a middle or high school model.

A broader problem?

Kepner is not the only DPS school where complaints have surfaced about school food.

In fact, while lunch was the culprit this time around, breakfast has been a target of complaints in Denver and elsewhere over the last couple of years. That’s because more schools have added breakfast in the classroom since the passage of the “Breakfast After the Bell” law in 2013.

That trend, which often means delivering coolers of food to individual classrooms, has contributed to the use of easy-to-distribute, prepackaged items. Thus, there can be a big disconnect between what is served at breakfast and what is served at lunch.

“Breakfast items are not up to par…with where the lunch programs are” said Wikstrom. “[They] meet the requirements but don’t match the message or the philosophy.”

Padres parent Leticia Zuniga, who has a preschool daughter and first grade son, said through a translator that she is unhappy with how many menu items are flour-based.

Her daughter is clinically overweight and Zuniga worries that school food is not teaching her healthy habits. Her son, meanwhile, is not overweight, but comes home from STRIVE Prep-Ruby Hill two or three times a week saying he didn’t eat lunch.

“He doesn’t like the food,” she said.

In February, two students at McAuliffe International Academy wrote an article for their student newspaper in which they skewered certain hot breakfast items.

The girls wrote: “…it is a disappointment when your teacher opens the hot food container and all you see is half burnt pizza in a bag or half melted omelet in a bag. Even teachers think it’s gross.”

Peña acknowledged such complaints and said the district’s breakfast pizza has drawn particular ire.

She’s heard from multiple parents: “We think the idea of breakfast pizza is just wrong.”

food fight

As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer served lunch at P.S./I.S. 180 in Harlem on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that federal funding for school food could end in April if the government shutdown drags on.

The historic partial government shutdown could soon threaten New York City’s school food program, which serves about a million students breakfast and lunch.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is drafting plans to keep school cafeterias open if the shutdown drags on, calling food for children “the number one thing we’re going to try to address.”

“In terms of drawing on some of our reserves, that would be a priority,” he said Thursday at a press conference to discuss the impact of the longest-ever shutdown.

The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April.

School food is lifeline for many families. About 75 percent of New York City students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — to meet that threshold, a family of three would earn about $33,000 a year, said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization that fought to make school lunch free for all city students.

“The real threat of [the meal programs] not being available lays bare some very real suffering,” Accles said. “The impact is pretty scary to think about.”

Other school districts are already beginning to feel the effects. One North Carolina school district recently announced it would scale-down its school lunches, cutting back on fresh produce and ice cream. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, one school district is hoping to recruit furloughed workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

The shutdown has dragged into its fourth week with no resolution in sight. President Trump and Congress are at an impasse over the president’s request for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

De Blasio’s media availability about the shutdown’s impact comes as he appears to be trying to bolster his national reputation. His State of the City speech last week focused on larger issues of income inequality and was followed up by appearances on CNN and “The View.”

De Blasio said it’s unclear whether the city would be eligible for reimbursement if it taps its own money to fund school food programs. And he warned that it would be impossible for the city to make up for all of the federal spending on programs that help poor families, which totals about $500 million a month.

“It is a dire situation, there is no other way to say it,” de Blasio said. “It will overwhelm us quickly.”

There are other ways the shutdown could be felt by students in the country’s largest school system, with funding for rental assistance and food benefits also in the balance. New York City is already struggling with a crisis in student homelessness: More than 100,000 lack permanent housing. Payments for food assistance are expected to stop in March, de Blasio said. An estimated 535,000 children under 18 years old benefit from that program.

Such out-of-school factors can have profound effects on student achievement. Cash benefits and food stamps have been linked to boosts in learning and students’ likelihood to stay in school. In New York City, the average family receives $230 in food assistance a month, according to city figures.

“The stress that the families are under, worrying about work and when they’re going to get paid, the children sense it. They hear it. They feel it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators. “We see the impacts of that.”

chronically absent

One in four students are chronically absent in Tennessee’s state-run district. Here’s what educators are doing about it.

PHOTO: (Lance Murphey, Memphis Daily News File Photo)
About 25 percent of students at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School were chronically absent last year, a drop of 6 percent from 2017.

More than one in four children in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district were chronically absent from school last year. Until recently, Armani Fleming, an eighth-grader in Memphis, risked being among them.

Armani struggled with attendance until a student support specialist with Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wrap-around services for children, worked with him to identify and resolve barriers keeping him from class at Humes Middle School, apart of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.

“I realized Mr. B really cared about me, and he’s helped me make sure I come,” Armani said of the support specialist, Cadarius Buckingham. “He’s more of a counselor to me. I come and talk to him about everything, he’s the person I come to when I need help … and me coming to school has gotten a lot better.”

In the Achievement School District, getting kids to show up at school matters. Recent research has shown that when students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent. Which is why nonprofits like Communities in Schools are sending staff members into local schools to connect with students like Armani.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District in 2012 to fix its lowest-performing schools by turning them over to charter organizations, but it has struggled to move the needle. Last year, 27.4 percent of the district’s students were chronically absent — representing a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year, but still alarmingly high. Now composed of 30 schools, the district faces higher rates of student mobility and poverty, contributing to its challenges with absenteeism.

Statewide, more than 13 percent of students are chronically absent, defined as having missed 10 percent of the school year, which is typically 18 or more days, for any reason (including excused absences and suspensions), but the average rate was significantly higher, 21 percent, for students who live in poverty.

The stakes are high for improving attendance numbers. Chronic absenteeism is now a major part of Tennessee schools are held accountable by the federal government. And research shows that children who are chronically absent from school are often academically below grade-level, more likely to drop out of school, and more frequently involved in the criminal justice system.

Communities in Schools is now in 19 Memphis schools, eight of them state-run. Those schools have seen, on average, a 5 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, according to Michael Russom, the group’s director of operations and communications.

One school, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary, saw even more dramatic results: an 18 percent drop in chronic absenteeism year-over-year. Last year, just 13.7 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.

What made the difference? Capstone Education Group, the charter school operator that runs Cornerstone schools, has a staff member dedicated to improving attendance and a partnership with Communities in Schools, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone, which runs two state-run schools in addition to Denver that also had low absenteeism numbers.

“Whenever a parent expresses some concern related to regular attendance, [Patricia] Burns works to resolve impediments to consistent attendance,” Sippel said of the school’s Manager of Student Information and Business Systems. “These impediments range from transportation, homelessness, and inability to purchase school uniforms.”

Untreated health issues is sometimes another factor.

Denver Elementary’s principal also worked with Capstone staff to increase the number of meetings with parents, and therefore, to pinpoint the root causes of students’ absences.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape’s staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

“There’s often an assumption or judgment with parents, ‘Why don’t you just make your kids go to school?’” said David Jordan, CEO of Agape, a Christian nonprofit that has also seen success in reducing chronic absences in Memphis schools. “We keep data on this, and it’s not that parents don’t care. There’s a lot of issues that can prevent students from making it to class.”

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout Memphis — and all students they work with are now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of the group’s goal for Agape students: to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For its part, Communities in Schools hopes to expand onto additional Memphis campuses, but for now, the focus is the schools they are already serving. And they have added additional staff to some of the highest-needs schools.

One such school is Fairley High School, an Achievement District school run by the charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. There, about 56 percent of students were chronically absent last year, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Russom said they placed two full-time support specialists within Fairley earlier this school year.

Last year, absences spiked at Fairley amid a change of leadership at the school, and it took time for the new principal to gain students’ trust, said Zachary Samson, Green Dot’s area superintendent.

“That’s one huge piece of chronic absenteeism that’s hard to quantify,” Samson said. “It makes such a difference when a student walks in the door, and I as a school leader am able to greet them by name. I know their mom. It’s students feeling seen and appreciated.”

To improve attendance, Samson said his staff is working with Communities in Schools to create an incentive program for students, in which students who meet their attendance goals can attend school parties. He added that they are also focusing on their communication with parents, as many parents may not be aware their children are chronically absent or of the consequences.

Samson said he’s confident attendance can improve at Fairley because he’s seen it happen at another Green Dot school – Wooddale Middle School. About 15 percent of students were chronically absent at Wooddale last year, a drop of 3 percent from the previous school year.

Communities in Schools has a full-time staff member at Wooddale, and that has made an enormous difference, Samson said, noting: “For schools where budgets are very, very tight, having another passionate educator in your school whose big focus is to address attendance and behavior with students – that’s a huge help.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of attended school days, which is typically 18 or more days for the school year.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that one in four students in the Achievement School District were chronically absent last school year, not one in three.