Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom Chat: Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland

Prince George’s County Public Schools (Md.) was one of the original five districts funded by the first cycle of the Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom grant back in 2010-11. In the most recent School Breakfast Scorecard released by FRAC, Maryland ranked fifth, achieving a ratio of 64.2 low-income students participating in school breakfast for every 100 participating in school lunch. PGCPS continues to serve breakfast-in-the-classroom in more than 100 district schools. We sat down with PGCPS Nutrition Services director Joan Shorter and district CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell to talk about why BIC remains a priority for their students.

One of the most impressive things about Prince George’s Public Schools’ breakfast-in-the-classroom program is that it’s managed to survive not one, not two, but three administrative changes in less than ten years, as well as quite a bit of principal turnover. Maintaining BIC through those kinds of changes requires patience and persistence, says Shorter. It also helps when your CEO shows immediate support for the program.

“Dr. Maxwell came in from another district in Maryland with knowledge of Maryland Meals for Achievement [breakfast program],” she recalled. “It didn’t take any convincing that breakfast was a good idea. He was on board.”

Another important factor in the sustainability of breakfast-in-the-classroom—in Prince George’s Schools, and statewide—was support for school breakfast from the very top. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was a believer in school breakfast, and advocated strongly for increased access to breakfast for students.

“He was a strong, strong proponent of school breakfast,” said Shorter. “[O’Malley] crunched the numbers like nobody’s business in terms of breakfast participation! He was very proactive, and would summon superintendents to his office to ask why they weren’t doing breakfast. The scene has changed politically in Maryland, so breakfast isn’t quite in the forefront the way it used to be.”

Dr. Maxwell comes by his support for school breakfast through experience. He saw the program in action when he was superintendent in Anne Arundel County, where BIC was implemented in 2006 along with a host of other programs like ‘Taste the Rainbow’ efforts to improve fruit and vegetable consumption.

“Breakfast has been a metric I’ve stayed focused on,” said Dr. Maxwell. “I’m in my fourth year as CEO here, and I’m back home in a district that has had a lot of turnover in this role. I’m here to give some continuity, and to get some strategic things accomplished.”

Is breakfast on that strategic list? Definitely, says Dr. Maxwell. While he hasn’t quite yet succeeded at getting breakfast fully-funded, he says he will keep asking when budget time rolls around, making sure it stays on everyone’s radar. And according to Shorter, the conversation around expanding access to school breakfast (and the breakfast-in-the-classroom option) is getting easier, and more stakeholders are receptive to the idea. Sustainable success takes root when principals show a willingness to go all-in.

“The schools we selected at the beginning had very high free/reduced percentages—something like 80 percent—so that was a driving factor with our principals at the time,” recalled Shorter. “For them it was about more than the academic piece; they were taking the whole child into account, taking a vested interest in their students. Principals who support breakfast-in-the-classroom are taking on a responsibility in their students’ development, and not just academically.

“To get buy-in from principals show them research, and target schools with principals who are interested in the program,” she continued. “If the program is successful in their school, that principal will help you sell it to other principals. In our early stages we would send principals to observe the program in another school, which is another good tip.”

The breakfast bottom line for Dr. Maxwell? It’s as simple as this: Hungry kids can’t learn—not to mention it’s just the right thing to do.

“If I had my ‘druthers every kid in the district would get a breakfast,” said Dr. Maxwell. “We are 62 percent free/reduced, and I just know that we have kids who are getting to school late who haven’t eaten anything, and I think that’s terrible. We are one of the wealthiest states in the wealthiest country in the world, and we just shouldn’t have hungry kids—that’s one of my fundamental beliefs.

“The overarching issue is that when kids are hungry they can’t focus on math, music, science, social studies, or art, if they are thinking about when they are going to eat,” he continued. “There’s not the “lost time” people think there is [in BIC]; it’s not like breakfast starts, then ends, and then instruction starts. Teachers can begin by talking about the day, or a debrief of how the night before was—how was dinner, did you get your homework done?–those things overlap, and it doesn’t have to mean a loss of instructional time.”

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