First Person

Healthy school food backers celebrate passage of school nutrition bill

A child eats dinner at the Kids Cafe at the Shopneck Boys and Girls Club in Brighton. Newly approved legislation will allow feeding programs such as the Kids Cafes to offer low-income children a third meal, in addition to school breakfast and lunch.

Christmas came early this week for child hunger advocates in Colorado who feared the U.S. Congress might play Grinch and fail to pass a long-sought child nutrition bill.

“There was an audible sound of relief and excitement when it passed,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who has spent much time this fall lobbying for the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which passed the House of Representatives 254-157 on Thursday. It now goes to President Obama for his signature.

“It was taking a long time,” Watney said. “We had not give up all hope, but there was a lot of concern.”

The act not only reauthorizes spending on the nation’s school lunch programs, it also provides $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to expand and streamline enrollment in those programs, to increase the meal reimbursement rate to schools who adhere to health meal standards and to establish and strengthen nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.

Advocates find much to love in the legislation

Around Denver, child advocates were unpacking the various parts of the bill, holding them up and admiring them, envisioning how they will impact Colorado. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, different people were drawn to different parts of the bill.

At Hunger Free Colorado, executive director Kathy Underhill was particularly pleased about that section that provides funding for suppers, in addition to school breakfasts and lunches.

“We already have some after-school programs that provide that third meal, but they’re only reimbursed for snacks,” said Underhill. “So somebody like Food Bank of the Rockies, who does a full meal at their Kids Cafes, with this funding they’ll be able to improve the quality of that meal. It will be huge. Food is a great draw, a great engagement tool.”

Underhill is also excited over the bill’s promised expansion in the number of summer feeding sites. Previously, non-profits who ran summer feeding programs were limited to no more than 25 meal sites. But this past summer, when Colorado obtained a waiver from that restriction, the number of children participating in summer feeding programs shot up.

“In Colorado, we served nearly a million meals to kids last summer. That’s up 26 percent from the summer before,” Underhill said. “That’s a significant statewide change in a year, and it’s because Colorado got that waiver that lifted the cap for nonprofits. Now that that’s been made federal law, it will help those high functioning nonprofits that really want to get in there and serve more kids to do so.”

Legislation means higher nutritional standards for school food, including snacks

At LiveWell Colorado, where the focus in on anti-obesity efforts, officials were applauding the tighter nutritional guidelines, as well as the increased meal reimbursement rates, which will allow school food programs to buy more fresh produce.

“We’re thrilled to see this bill’s passage because the legislation will significantly promote and advance healthy foods in our schools,” said Maren Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell. “That’s a critical element in the fight against childhood obesity. People have seen that Colorado is ranked as the leanest state in the country, but that’s a ranking that’s for adults. Our childhood obesity rate isn’t as good. We’re 23rd in the country for childhood obesity. It’s a problem in Colorado, and this act will make a big impact.”

The amount the federal government reimburses school districts for meals varies depending on location and on the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, but typically ranges between $2.32 and $2.89 per eligible child, and 26 cents to 34 cents for children who pay full price. Those reimbursement rates, which have not been increased in 30 years, will now go up by 6 cents.

Six cents doesn’t sound like much, but when multiplied by thousands of children every day, it adds up, Stewart said.

“What we hope to see in the short term is that schools will take advantage of the increase by serving more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. It can make a big difference,” she said.

Another section of the bill for the first time requires all foods served at school – including snacks – to meet minimum nutritional standards. At the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Watney was happily envisioning vending machines stocked with granola bars, apples and water rather than candy bars, potato chips and sugary drinks.

“It seems counterintuitive, but with childhood poverty on the rise in Colorado, we’re also seeing hunger and obesity on the rise. Kids who may be either hungry or coming from homes with food instability are more likely to grab a snack from a vending machine during the morning. And if what is available there is candy and potato chips, that leads to an increase in obesity,” Watney said. “The reality is that kids are like all of us. Sometimes they just go for what’s there. So it’s our responsibility to see to it that what’s there will feed their bodies and their minds.”

Watney said a survey last year of 23 of the largest school districts in Colorado – accounting for 80 percent of the state’s school enrollment – revealed that only four districts required snacks to meet minimum nutritional standards. Now, all districts will be required to implement those standards.

Kids Cafes already serving suppers to youngsters

At Food Bank of the Rockies, officials aren’t sure just how the new legislation will impact them, but expect it will only be good.

“We hope we’ll be able to expand the number of sites, and increase what we can give the kids at their meals,” said Janie Gianotsos, director of community relations and marketing.

As of October, the food bank was running 18 Kids Café sites, serving full suppers to about 1,000 youngsters each day, plus 107 snack sites serving another 2,600 kids daily.  For each of those 28,300 monthly meals, the organization is reimbursed just 74 cents apiece. It spends around $1 per meal, depending on how much is purchased and how much can be made with donated foodstuffs.

Next month, the organization plans to open a community kitchen at which to prepare the hot meals, then deliver them to the dispersed sites.

“They eat early, around 4 p.m.,” Gianotsos said. “They come directly after school and play awhile, then they have a sit-down meal, then go back and play some more. For a lot of these kids, there’s nothing for them to eat at home. For some, their home situtation is extremely dire. These meals are extremely important for these kids.”

Funding the bill remains problematic

Despite the rejoicing at the bill’s promises, some lumps of coal remain.

Opponents of the bill – including two Colorado Republicans, Rep. Mike Coffman and Rep. Doug Lamborn – questioned the bill’s price tag and its increased spending at a time when the deficit is causing ever-greater concern.

“I joined with the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators in opposing the legislation because of its costly unfunded federal mandates on school districts as well as my concern over the $4.5 billion in new spending,” Coffman said in a statement.

Even Underhill is distressed that the source of the funds to pay for the program is the nation’s food stamp program.

“I hate to see food stamp benefits raided,” she said. “I am hopeful they will fix that yet during this lame duck session.”

She said public opinion appears to be very much on the side of funding anti-hunger programs. She said that a newly-completed statewide poll commissioned by Hunger-Free Colorado found that 70 percent of respondents oppose cutting state and local hunger programs as a way to balance the budget, and of that number, 49 percent said they were “strongly opposed.”

“That’s from every region of the state, including liberals, moderates and conservatives,” she said. “The people in Colorado want this issue addressed.”

More information:

Read a summary of the bill’s provisions.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.