free lunch

New York City unveils universal free lunch in time for the first day of school

PHOTO: Helen Richardson, The Denver Post

After years of lobbying from City Council members and school nutrition advocates, New York City will offer free lunch to all public school students regardless of their families’ income — a change the city expects will result in fewer students missing out on lunch.

The new program — called Free School Lunch for All — will take effect in time for the first day of school on Thursday and will mean that an additional 200,000 students are now eligible for free lunch. It marks the end of a rift between Mayor Bill de Blasio and allies on the City Council who have urged him to enact his campaign promise to make lunch free for all students.

Roughly 780,000 students are currently eligible for free or reduced-price lunch because their household income falls below a certain threshold — more than 70 percent of the city’s student population, advocates say. But families must first fill out paperwork and students must overcome the lunchroom stigma attached to free meals, which discourages some from applying. About one-third of eligible students do not participate, according to advocates.

The de Blasio administration has slowly expanded access to free meals: The city began a pilot program offering free lunch to middle school students in 2014, and currently offers free breakfast at every school.

“This is about equity,” schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said at a press conference Wednesday, where she was joined by city council leaders, union officials, and advocates. “There is a basic level of investment that every New Yorker deserves.”

Before the announcement, the city had already allocated additional funding that would have ensured roughly 75 percent of the city’s students were enrolled at schools that offered free lunch regardless of income, according to Deputy Chancellor Elizabeth Rose, up from 30 percent last school year.

Under the old program, students had to identify themselves as free-lunch recipients, creating a clear distinction in school cafeterias between students who could afford the $1.75 school lunches and those who couldn’t.

Liz Accles, who has long advocated for universal school lunch as executive director of Community Food Advocates, said the new policy would help eliminate that stigma.

“We’re erasing all the terrible history of the school food program — not just in New York City, but nationally — that has divided children by income,” she said. “This is a new day.”

The Obama administration made a significant push to improve school lunches, and some urban districts — including Detroit and Boston — have rolled out free meals regardless of income. But until now, de Blasio has balked at expanding the lunch program to include all students.

The state recently launched a new system for identifying free-lunch eligible students based on their families’ participation in other government programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps. The new system identified more eligible students, which brought more federal money into the city to help fund an expanded lunch program.

Education officials said the higher reimbursements would cover the full cost of the meals themselves, but the city may have to spend more on food workers.

“We will know final costs when we actually see how many kids actually take advantage of this program,” the education department’s Rose said in an interview, noting that roughly 6 percent more students ate lunch in middle school after the city made it universal.

In the past, Chancellor Fariña has said her “major fear” with offering universal free lunch is that certain high-poverty schools might receive less federal Title I money, since the funding levels are based on how many students qualify for subsidized lunch.

Education officials could not say for sure Wednesday whether moving to a universal system would affect any school’s Title I funding. However, they said schools would continue asking families to fill out paperwork stating their income, even though it will no longer be necessary for students to receive free lunch. The free-lunch-for-all pilot program in middle schools did not have a big impact on any school’s Title I funding, they added.

Advocates have been frustrated with the city’s incremental moves toward universal free lunch. Earlier this year, they criticized Fariña for telling principals to give students free lunch if they asked for it — missing the point that students often don’t ask because they feel embarrassed.

“No child should go hungry in our schools,” said Public Advocate Letitia James, who has previously called on the city to expand free lunch. “This has been a long fight.”

breaking

A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:


A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”