out-of-school factors

Food for thought: Students’ test scores rise a few weeks after families get food stamps

After a full month since a major food shopping trip had been taken, the refrigerator at the home of Raphael Richmond and her six children was near empty. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Families receiving food stamps get their benefits once a month. A few weeks later, kids’ test scores tick up.

The pattern, revealed by a new study of thousands of North Carolina families, suggests that the additional access to healthy food helps students do better in school.

It’s the latest study to quantify how out-of-school factors affect academic performance, and an example of why some districts are embracing “community schools” that try to provide health and other benefits for students and families.

“Improving educational outcomes for low-income children may require looking beyond the school door,” write researchers Anna Gassman-Pines and Laura Bellows, both of Duke University.

The study, published last week in the peer-reviewed American Educational Research Journal, takes advantage of a North Carolina quirk: Food stamps, officially called SNAP, are distributed on different weeks of the month based on recipients’ social security numbers. This creates a natural experiment, since some students’ families will receive their benefits close to the state test, while others will receive them two, three, or four weeks earlier.

Poor families often run out of money during the month and have to do without or rely on cheaper, less healthy food until their benefits are replenished.

In another study, one person receiving food stamps explained: “At the [beginning of the month] you have all the fun food, you got the meat and the fresh vegetables and stuff and by the [end], you’re eating the breads and the pastas and the canned stuff.”

This idea led the North Carolina researchers to expect student achievement to spike right after the benefits were distributed. But that’s not what they found. In fact, achievement looked like a reverse U — scores were highest around three weeks after families received benefits, and lowest at the beginning and end of that cycle. The differences were modest, but statistically significant.

It’s not fully clear why scores spike around that three-week mark, but the researchers suggest that the academic benefits of better access to food, like improved nutrition and reduced stress, take some time to accrue.

“Students with peak test performance (who received SNAP around two weeks prior to their test date) may have benefited from access to sufficient food resources and lowered stress not only on the day of the test but for the previous two weeks,” Gassman-Pines and Bellows write.

Other research has linked food stamp cycles and what happens in school, too.  

A South Carolina study found that students performed worst when tests were administered at the very beginning or the end of food stamp benefit cycles. A paper focusing on Chicago found students receiving SNAP benefits had more behavioral problems at the end of the month, when food may have run low.

In general, participation in food stamp and other government benefit programs have been shown to help students’ academic performance, as well as their short- and long-term health. Research has also shown that healthy school lunches improve achievement.

And while the North Carolina study focuses on how SNAP timing affects students on a specific test day, the researchers point out the consequences going hungry or subsisting on less healthy food may multiply over time.

“[Students] may be less able to learn because of temporarily lowered cognitive functioning or less ability to pay attention,” the researchers write. “Even if these periods represent only a few days each SNAP benefit cycle, these consequences of these ‘lowered learning’ days over the course of the school year may accumulate over the course of the academic year.”

making plans

Push to curb academic segregation on the Upper West Side generates a backlash — and support

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 is floating a plan to boost academic diversity in middle schools, including Wadleigh Secondary School.

A plan to make it more likely that higher- and lower-performing students on the Upper West Side go to middle school together is stoking divisions among some families there.

Officials in District 3 are pushing a plan to offer at least a quarter of seats at the district’s 16 middle schools to students whose state test scores suggest they are not proficient in reading and math. Ten percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level, and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar.

The change would have dramatic effects at some of the district’s schools, according to a city analysis, while other schools would see their student population change less.

Most likely to be shaken up by the proposal, if it goes into effect: The expectation in the district that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Maria Santa, whose daughter attends a district elementary school that few middle-class families choose. “I don’t think people are going to stand for this.”

Indeed, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism at some of the public meetings that the education department is holding to inform parents and drum up support. An NY1 report about one meeting, held at P.S. 199 during the school day Tuesday, featured parents who pushed back strongly against the proposal, saying their kids would be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated: Life sucks!’” one woman shouted.

But many of the district’s elected parent leaders are on board, as are other local parents. So, too, are principals in the district, who say the move could protect their schools after the city barred them from seeing how students ranked them on their applications.

That change, announced in June, was the city’s effort to eliminate strategic tricks that weren’t in middle school directories but were known by savvy parents and consultants that some families hire to guide them through the admissions process.

But in District 3, one of three Manhattan districts currently using “revealed rankings” in middle school admissions, principals said they actually used information about how much students wanted to go to their schools to engineer more diverse student populations.

“What first choice allowed us to do is fairly distinguish between [students], because anyone could list us first,” said Marlon Lowe, principal of Mott Hall II in Morningside Heights. “We would interview you, we would get to know your scholar and we would make a serious, thoughtful decision based on many variables.”

Mott Hall II’s admissions process resulted in a relatively diverse student population – but other schools in the district are segregated by race and achievement level.

About 87 percent of admissions offers at J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, for example, went to students who earned top scores on state tests, and about 60 percent of students are white. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a pre-K through 8th grade school where more than 60 percent of students are black, just 6 percent of offers went to students who earned high test scores.

“We are not offering all students equity and access across all the district,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. “We need to do something.”

At one recent meeting, Altschul hastened to reassure parents who might worry that top-scoring students will have a tougher time getting into the most coveted schools. She admitted that fewer families would get their first pick under the plan — but she said the percentage of students who are admitted to one of their top three choices should remain about the same.

A simulation based on application data from 2017 suggests there could be significant changes, especially in schools that attract top-scoring students. At West End Secondary School, the number of students with the highest test scores would fall 19 percentage points, resulting in 66 percent of all students earning top test scores. But at P.S. 180, which has middle school grades, the simulation found that just one more high-performing student would be offered admissions under the new plan.

That’s a product of how families are ranking the schools, said Kristen Berger, a parent who has been leading the district’s diversity efforts as chair of the parent council’s middle school committee. Higher-scoring students just aren’t ranking schools where a majority of students have lower test scores, she said. It may also be harder to change the makeup of K-8 schools, Berger said, since many students chose to stay through middle school.

“The most crucial component to this is to give serious consideration to a wide range of schools,” Berger said. “It’s a big step, I definitely recognize it… but in the long run this is better for our children.”

Some members of the district’s elected parent council said that reality means the city needs to do more than just reserve seats for lower-scoring students.

“This is not remotely enough,” Daniel Katz, who sits on the council, said about the projected change at P.S. 180. “The number of impacted children at these schools is basically non-existent.”

Another council member, Genisha Metcalf, raised concerns that the proposal could steer more families away from schools that currently serve many low-performing students.

“If we want to see true diversity,” Metcalf said, “the plan needs to both include how do we get students into those highly sought-after schools, and, how do we ensure that the schools people are considering undesirable are not in an even worse spot.”

Education department officials have long made it clear that grassroots support is critical to pursuing any diversity efforts. (New Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is more open to pushing for integration than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who said changes to schools’ demographics should happen “organically.”)

A previous plan to make District 3 middle schools more economically diverse died after parents and principals rallied against it. In 2016, Altschul proposed setting aside 30 percent of seats at each middle school for low-income students, but wasn’t able to build support for the change.

Now, Altschul has won over principals, but parents are airing concerns. At a recent public meeting, one father stood up to ask whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if more students with low test scores are admitted to his school.

He was echoing a concern that has come up repeatedly at selective schools, where parents worry that any changes to admissions could water down instruction. While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said the father, whose son attends the Computer School and who declined to be quoted by name. “With more challenging kids in the class, you’re putting on much more stress” on teachers.

Some middle-class families say they’re prepared to embrace the changes, even if their own children might face a tougher path to their first-choice middle school. Nicole Greevy, who has a child in third grade in District 3, acknowledged it may take time for the plan to have a noticeable impact in schools, but she called it a “terrific start.”

“I think diversity benefits everyone,” she said. “I did not have a classmate who was African American until I got to college and that was a failure on the part of my schools. I want my child to have a better experience than I did.”

If Altschul formally proposes the changes to the education department and it gets city approval, the changes would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year — the same time when the citywide middle school changes will be implemented. She said the change is needed to help boost performance for all students.

“This is the work we really need to do around closing the achievement gap,” she said. “Integrating students across all levels is really what’s essential. It really does strengthen learning for all students.”

student activism

Memphis students present demands on school safety in wake of Parkland shooting

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Memphis students walked out of class last week to call attention to gun violence.

Students presented a list of requests to the Shelby County Schools board related to safety, including improving student discipline practices, hiring more school counselors, offering conflict resolution classes, and help in advocating against giving guns to teachers.

The list was created after walkouts last week at about 20 Memphis high schools in response to the killing of 17 people in February in Parkland, Florida.

Student leaders from five high schools gave a presentation Tuesday evening at a school board meeting, which was met with applause from district leaders.

“We ask that youth are visibly and vocally involved in decision making. We are the ones sitting in the classroom day after day,” said Mallori King, a junior at Ridgeway High School. “Youth voice should not look like tokenism. It should look like equity.”

The walkouts — that received the district’s blessing — also honored the 19th anniversary of the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. Since the school shootings in Parkland, students around the country have demanded lawmakers take action against gun violence.

In the students’ words, they want the board to:

  • Stop kicking students out of school instead of figuring out what’s going on.
  • Make time for teachers and administrators to have one-on-one time with students so they can truly get to know them.
  • We need more counselors and support groups.
  • We want a conflict resolution class to be taught in school.
  • We want a class on mental health to be taught in school.
  • Do more to stop sexual harassment and assault from happening in our schools.
  • Please do not arm our teachers. Help us prevent this from happening.
  • Keep supporting student activism and student voice in Shelby County Schools.

Savanah Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School, said support for students, such as more school counselors, and a mental health and conflict resolution class, would most effectively prevent violence in schools.

“People with mental health issues are not the problem. The lack of resources for people with mental health issues, such as myself, is the problem,” she said.

LaDiva Coleman, a senior at Freedom Preparatory Academy, spoke against a recent legislative effort to arm teachers with guns, an effort lawmakers say could make students safer but is adamantly opposed by many educators.

“Arming teachers with guns will not make us safer because we don’t know what’s going in teacher’s minds during the day,” she said. “If a student can shoot other students with guns, so can teachers.”

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he would review the district’s sexual harassment policy, which he conceded is not specific about student-to-student protocol. He also called the mental health class “a wonderful suggestion.”

Students unrelated to the list of requests asked board members during the meeting to allow a student representative on the board. Hopson said that would be an “easy win” and “would work with the school board to see if that can happen.”

“I’m very impressed and very proud of our students,” Hopson said after the meeting. “They want their voices to be heard.”

The district’s proposed budget, which heads to county commissioners for approval next month, already addresses some of the students’ requests. The $1 billion spending plan includes $4.3 million to hire 35 school counselors, and $800,000 to hire 10 more behavior specialists, who are charged with dealing with root causes of student misbehavior. The Memphis district has the highest rates of student suspension in the state and has been working in recent years to prevent that.

Notably missing from the students’ list was the main proposal county and district leaders have promoted as a key prevention of violence in schools: school resource officers, the armed district employees and sheriff deputies trained to work in schools.

County leaders, including Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, recently produced a report urging the county’s seven school systems to review their emergency plans and take stock of their school resources officers, but didn’t offer specific recommendations.

Hopson’s budget includes $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers, some of whom would be assigned to elementary schools for the first time. That’s on top of the 98 already in all of the district’s high schools and some middle schools.

Student leaders plan to accept more recommendations from students through their website: www.walkoutmemphis.weebly.com.

This story has been updated with comment from Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.