Lunch is served

Now that lunch is free for all New York City students: How many will eat it?

PHOTO: Denver Post

When schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced the day before school started last week that New York City would no longer charge any student for school lunch, principals across the city celebrated the change.

Now, to their relief, they wouldn’t have to pester families who often wound up owing them for unpaid meals or worry that some students were skipping out on lunch because they were ashamed about qualifying for free meals. But, to make the most of the program, they would have to spread the word to families and encourage students to take advantage of it — so some immediately began drafting letters to families and preparing to make lunchroom announcements.

But even as schools rushed to carry out the new policy, which made an additional 200,000 students eligible for free lunch, city officials didn’t expect a sudden spike in students eating school lunches. And even advocates say it will require sustained outreach to convince middle-class and low-income students alike to take the free meals.

“This is a policy that for decades had separated children by income,” said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates. “It’s going to take some time to undo that.”

Even though most principals welcomed the new policy, some said it was unlikely to create a big change at schools where most students already received free lunch.

Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters Principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said many of his students reacted with indifference when they were told about the new policy. He suspects that’s because — as in many city schools where most of the students come from low-income families — the vast majority of students were already eligible for subsidized meals.

“It’s great,” he said, “but the reality is a huge portion of our kids are already getting free lunch.”

For years, advocates have pushed Mayor Bill de Blasio to make lunch free for all students. Until now, families have had to earn at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, or $45,510 for a family of four, to qualify for subsidized lunch. While 75 percent of the city’s students qualified under that old standard, some families who earned more still couldn’t easily afford the $1.75 lunch — and students often felt stigmatized for claiming a free meal.

The city had been moving incrementally toward free lunch, making it universal at standalone middle schools in 2014, which resulted in a 6 percent increase in those students eating school lunch, officials said. Now that lunch is free citywide, an education department spokesman projected the new lunch policy would result in 29,000 additional students getting lunch each day — a 3.4 percent increase.

That relatively modest bump is far lower than what some advocates have predicted. Community Food Advocates had anticipated an additional 120,000 lunches per day, and the organization’s executive director, Liz Accles, stressed the city should work to aggressively to make sure parents know it’s free and convince students to participate.

“The policy change is most important, but what’s the messaging to students and families?” Accles said. “I think there should be a bigger jump than 3 percent if there’s a real effort to publicize.”

City officials noted Fariña sent a letter home announcing the change, notices have appeared on school websites, and some principals have been sending reminders of their own.

At Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, principal Damon McCord said he appreciated the new policy even though his school has not struggled with any stigma associated with free lunch.

A relatively even mix of students at MELS qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but because students pay for lunch using a barcode on the back of their student ID cards (a common practice at city schools) it’s difficult for students to tell which of their classmates cannot afford lunch.

“That system had gone a long way to help take some of the anxiety out of the lunch lines,” McCord said.

Still, McCord and other principals expressed some concern that the new program could make it more difficult to qualify for federal Title I funding that flows to schools with higher shares of students who qualify for subsidized lunch.

McCord sent an email to families Monday stressing that even though lunch will be free for all students, families should still fill out the old income forms to help the school collect additional federal funding.

Last year, the proportion of families who qualified was about five percentage points short of the 60 percent threshold required for schools to receive extra Title I money, he said. McCord said he is unsure if the free lunch program will make it more difficult to persuade parents to submit the form.

But, in a sign of how federal funding can provide a major boost to school budgets, he noted two to three school staffers would spend the next month making sure families filled out the forms. (City officials said moving to universal free lunch in middle schools created few paperwork problems.)

“There’s a lot that a school can do with that money,” McCord said. “It’s a feast-or-famine system that’s in dire need of reform.”

Across the city at the Academy of Arts and Letters, a K-8 school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that wasn’t included in the middle school free lunch program, principal John O’Reilly said he’s thrilled about the new program.

Because students are allowed to roam between lunch and recess, there is less scrutiny of who is eating school lunches and who isn’t, even though about a third of students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, O’Reilly said.

As the city has worked to make school lunches more nutritious by adding salad bars and using more locally-sourced ingredients, it appears to be having an added benefit of attracting a wider range of students to the lunch line, lessening the stigma attached to school meals.

“When the lunch is better, it’s harder to know who’s qualified for free lunch and who isn’t,” O’Reilly said. “They want really good food.”

Finding a home

Denver school board permanently co-locates charter elementary in middle school building

Students and staffers at Rocky Mountain Prep's first charter school in Denver cheer in 2012. (Photo by The Denver Post)

A Denver elementary charter school that was temporarily granted space in a shuttering district-run middle school building will now be housed there permanently.

The school board voted Thursday to permanently place Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest charter school in the Kepner Middle School building, where it is sharing space this year with three other school programs. Such co-locations can be controversial but have become more common in a district with skyrocketing real estate prices and ambitious school quality goals.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest is part of a homegrown charter network that has shown promising academic results. The network also has a school in Aurora and is expected to open a third Denver school next year in the northwest part of the city.

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest was first placed at Kepner for the 2015-16 school year. The placement was supposed to be temporary. The district had decided the year before to phase out low-performing Kepner and replace it a new district-run middle school, Kepner Beacon, and a new charter middle school, STRIVE Prep Kepner, which is part of a larger network. The district also temporarily placed a third charter school there: Compass Academy.

Compass has since moved out of Kepner but the other four schools remain: Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, Kepner Beacon, STRIVE Prep Kepner and the Kepner Legacy Middle School, which is on track to be completely phased out and closed by June 2019.

In a written recommendation to the school board, district officials acknowledged that permanently placing Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest at Kepner would create a space crunch.

The Kepner campus has the capacity to serve between 1,100 and 1,500 students, the recommendation says. Once all three schools reach full size, officials expect the schools will enroll a total of approximately 1,250 students. Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest currently serves students in preschool through third grade with a plan to add more grades.

“DPS facilities staff are currently working with all three schools to create a long‐term vision for the campus, including facility improvements that ensure all three schools have what they need to continue to excel,” says the recommendation from Chief Operating Officer David Suppes and Director of Operations and Support Services Liz Mendez.

District staff tried to find an alternate location for Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest but were unsuccessful, the recommendation says. The district does not have many available buildings, and competition for them among district-run and charter schools can be fierce. In northeast Denver, seven secondary schools are currently vying for the use of a shuttered elementary.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis needs tech workers. IPS hopes that George Washington will help fill that gap.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana companies are looking for workers with computer expertise, and Indianapolis Public Schools leaders want their students to fill that gap.

Next year, George Washington High School will launch a specialized information technology academy designed to give students the skills to pursue careers in IT — and the exposure to know what jobs even exist.

“Half of what kids aspire to be is either someone they know does it or they’ve seen it on TV,” said Karen Jung, president of Nextech, a nonprofit that works to increase computer science preparation in K-12 schools. Nextech is partnering with IPS to develop the new IT program at George Washington.

For teens who don’t know anyone working in computer science, meeting role models is essential, Jung said. When teens see women of color or artists working in computer sciences, they realize there are opportunities for people like them.

“Once we put them in front of and inside of workplaces … it clicks,” Jung said. They believe “they would belong.”

The IT program is one of three academies that will open in George Washington next year as part of a broad plan to close nearly half of the district’s high schools and add specialized focus areas at the four remaining campuses. In addition to the IT academy, George Washington will have programs in: advanced manufacturing, engineering, and logistics; and business and finance.

The district is also moving to a model without neighborhood high schools. Students will be expected to choose high schools based on focus area rather than location. This year, many current high schoolers were required to reapply in an effort to make sure they enroll in academies that fit their interests.

The district will host a showcase of schools to help parents and students with their selections. The showcase runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Indiana State Museum.

Stan Law, principal of Arlington High School now, will take over George Washington next year. (Arlington will close at the end of this year.) He said the new academies offer an opportunity for students to see what they need to master — from soft skills to knowledge — to get good jobs when they graduate.

“I want kids to really make the connection of the purpose of high school,” Law said. “It is that foundation for the rest of your life, in terms of the quality of life that you are going to live.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Stan Law

When the IT academy launches next year, students who select the program will be able to spend about one to two classes per year focused on information technology, said Ben Carter, who runs career and technical education for IPS.

Carter hopes the academies will reshape George Washington and other IPS campuses by connecting potential careers with the work students do everyday at school. Students who share a focus area will be in a cohort, and they will share many of the same core classes such as English, math and history, said Carter. Teachers, in turn, will be able to relate what students are studying in their history class to projects they are working on in the IT program, for example.

To show students what a career in information technology might look like, students will have the chance to tour, connect with mentors and intern at local companies.

“If I’m in one of these career classes — I’m in software development, but then I get to go to Salesforce and walk through and see the environment, to me as a student, that’s inspiring,” said Carter. “It’s like, ‘oh, this is what I can have.’ ”

He added. “It increases engagement but also gives them a true sense of what the career is.”