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Empty bellies and student discipline

February 25th, 2014 by Chris Henry

The link between discipline in schools and student achievement has gotten considerable attention over the past year in Olympia. The Legislature last year passed a bill, effective in September, requiring that districts take steps to reduce expulsions and bring kids who have been expelled back into the fold, whenever possible.

A bill introduced this session (SHB 2536) connects the dots between misbehavior and hunger. The bill, which passed the House last week 67-31, would require districts with high numbers of low-income students to implement so-called “breakfast after the bell” programs.

In most districts, breakfast is available before school starts (not after the first bell). Although available to all students, breakfast before the bell is meant to ensure that children financially eligible for free- and reduced-cost meals have a shot at what nutritionists call the most important meal of the day. But low-income kids can feel stigmatized by the arrangement, say child advocates backing the bill. Sometimes transportation is an issue … as if there weren’t already enough reasons to skip breakfast.

The bill cites evidence that school breakfast is associated with “improved outcomes” for students, including fewer discipline incidents, better attendance and improved performance on standardized tests. Washington State ranks forty-first in the nation for participation in school breakfast programs, according to the text of the bill.

The bill, now with the Senate, calls for a four-year, phased-in process for providing breakfast after the bell in “high needs” schools. Beginning in the 2016-2017 school year, all high needs elementary schools in the state would be required to offer some form of breakfast after the bell; the requirement would extend to all high needs schools the following years.

Schools could use whatever model best suits their student population and logistical requirements. Models proposed in the bill include, but are not limited to, breakfast in the classroom, “grab and go” breakfast, or a breakfast after first period.

An amended to the bill would allow high needs schools to obtain waivers from the requirement if they could show that their direct costs for the program, including food service staff, would exceed available revenues.

Funding would come from federal school nutrition sources and the cost to the state would be “minimal,” according to Sara Levin, of the United Way of King County, which would help with start up costs in that county, and Katie Mosehauer of Washington Appleseed, a public policy organization aimed at social justice. The Breakfast After the Bell program will cost an estimated $9.6 million per year when fully implemented.

Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, doubts the bill will make it through the Senate, at least in this version. Haigh, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said even proponents of the bill feel there are issues inadequately addressed, including cost. There are other concerns around the logistical challenge of allowing food in classrooms and ensuring the nutritional quality of what students are eating.

Nonetheless, said Haigh, passing a law to promote wider access to breakfast in schools is something the Legislature should pursue. “We’ve got to keep working on this,” she said.

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One Response to “Empty bellies and student discipline”

  1. AlysonRR Says:

    I’ve read of programs where breakfast foods are delivered to each classroom just before school so that children can grab something to eat as they enter. I love the idea!

    My children are not on free or reduced meal plans at school, but they sometimes want to eat the breakfast (when it’s something they like). Unfortunately, their bus is the last one and they are frequently disappointed that their choice is already sold out OR there are no breakfasts left. That’s disappointing to them, but devastating to a child who may not have had much, if anything, to eat since school the previous day…

    If all children in a school were getting breakfast in the classroom (at least offered), the stigma would be reduced, certainly, but also, the district could plan the number of meals more accurately.

    I know, blah, blah, blah, parental responsibility, nanny state – whatever. What I care about is that children who are hungry get food, particularly at the beginning of the day. I don’t see this taking any significant time away from the class, since in the classrooms I have visited the teachers usually start the day with announcements and a bit of a lecture.

    Kids who aren’t hungry do better in school.

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