Back in October we reached out to stakeholders from all over the country seeking input on an article (“From Ire to Inspired”) about breakfast in the classroom for School Nutrition Magazine, and the response was overwhelming. We heard from principals, superintendents, teachers, and custodians, all of whom were eager to share their experiences with the program. In fact, the response was so incredible that we saved a few of those interviews to share with you directly here at Beyond Breakfast, including today’s conversation with Laurence Spring, Superintendent of the Schenectady School District in Upstate New York.
“You should not have eight-year-olds being diagnosed with PTSD.”
With twenty-five years of experience in education, Spring has worn many hats—teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and now superintendent. Now in his fourth year with Schenectady, Superintendent Spring says he came to breakfast-in-the-classroom in an effort to level the playing field for his students.
“Three years ago we started an initiative around equity,” he explained. “My mission is to ensure that race, economics, and disability no longer predict student achievement. As we started to look at mitigating those three factors, we ended up backing into the feeding piece.”
As Superintendent Spring and his colleagues began investigating factors affecting student achievement they discovered something surprising—a pretty significant level of anxiety in the kids’ lives.
“When we’ve got kids with ]significant mental health needs we have to ask where it’s coming from,” said Spring. “Why is [stress] so prevalent? Why is there so much PTSD, which is something you see soldiers coming back with from Afghanistan—you should not have eight-year-olds being diagnosed with PTSD.” As they looked deeper, they discovered that the number of children experiencing food insecurity was high, and that it was a significant source of the students’ anxiety.
“When you don’t know whether or not you’re going to get a meal, there is a level of anxiety that you’re living with that is persistent enough that it’s actually toxic to your system,” explained Spring. “It does significant damage to your brain. It actually limits your functioning ability—your ability to plan, to think ahead, to weigh consequences—so there is a real and concrete negative effect that this stress has on kids.”
A swift implementation of breakfast in the classroom
The plan to mitigate the anxiety over food security had two components to increase student access to nutritious meals: combine Community Eligibility Provision with breakfast in the classroom. And the plan was to do it quickly, in all schools; as far as coalition building goes, Superintendent Spring admits there wasn’t much time for gentle persuasion with individual groups of stakeholders.
“We quite honestly did not spend a lot of time on building this coalition—we went ahead and did it,” he explained. “It’s a thing our kids need, and the need was already pretty intense; and we didn’t have to convince anyone that the need was there.”
Once the breakfast program was in place, a committee was formed to help problem-solve and improve logistics around things like trash disposal and overall efficiency. Superintendent Spring was prepared for some negative feedback about the program, and braced himself for it at one of his regular “coffee hours”—informal meetings to give teachers and school staff the opportunity to bend his ear.
“A first grade teacher [came forward] wanting to say something, and she starts to talk about the new breakfast program,” said Spring, recalling the conversation. “I thought I knew what she was going to say, so I interrupted her—I told her I knew the logistics were tough, that we had trash in the rooms and worry [over] leftover milk, but I assured her that the committee would address that.”
Spring paused, laughing, and continued.
“And she gave me that look, you know that look that only an experienced first grade teacher can give? She let me know just how wrong I had it, saying, ‘I appreciate that Mr. Spring, but that’s not what I was going to say. I was going to say thank you for doing this. You have no idea. I no longer have to buy food for my class on the weekend. I no longer have kids at 10:30 in the morning tugging at my elbow saying, Miss, miss! My stomach hurts! Miss, I’m hungry! Miss, do you have anything I can eat? I can teach. I can teach in the morning now, so thank you. We’ll figure out the trash cans. Thank you for feeding the children.’”
Impact goes beyond breakfast—other benefits of BIC
When Laurence Spring brought BIC to his district, he did so in one fell swoop, implementing the program in all 17 buildings in the Schenectady School District, and delivering breakfast in the classroom to ten thousand students.
“That’s not a small roll-out, but the foodservice director was gung-ho,” said Spring. “He’d been trying to get something like this off the ground, so I think he was a little bit surprised [by my enthusiasm].”
Once breakfast was implemented, some profound changes took place—benefits that even Spring, the program’s champion, did not anticipate.
“We thought we were going to ease one stressor for kids—take away what they call an ‘adverse childhood experience’, or ACE—but what we found was that the BIC model is actually a productive way to start the day. It’s quiet, it’s calming, it helps the teacher get things moving in a way that is not “Ready, Set, GO!”, but rather eases kids into the [day].”
Attendance also saw a significant boost at all grade levels—most markedly at the elementary level, but also at the middle, and high schools. The number of chronically absent children went down significantly, indicating that breakfast was a motivating factor in getting students to school.
“There is a pretty high correlation between wealth and your attendance,” explained Spring. “Kids who are chronically absent tend to be living in more intense poverty. If breakfast is $1.50 a week, and lunch is $2.50, that’s $8 a week—forty bucks a week, forty weeks of school, that’s $1600. That’s a couple of months of rent.” Breakfast in the classroom both removes a burden (off the parents) and adds an incentive for a student to get to school every day.
Talk about a win-win.
Selling breakfast in the classroom to other superintendents
When it comes to running a district, superintendents may get more caught up in reading scores than average daily participation, but it’s worth brushing up on the operations—and impact—of the school foodservice program.
“Feeding programs are kind of a black box,” said Spring. “When you look at a superintendent, they’ve almost always got there through the instructional side; I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who is a superintendent that has a spot on their resume where they were a foodservice director. That area around feeding is one of the least-known areas of operations, and when people don’t know a lot about something they tend to not want to fiddle with it.” The regulations can also be intimidating to an outsider, but it’s worth the time and effort when the returns are so big—and so important.
“Breakfast in the classroom is not a thing to be afraid of,” said Spring. “I try to share with folks the “here is where we were pre- and post-CEP and breakfast” and financially, we are better off than we were before. The program is a relief for teachers, and a benefit for students and [the district].