How does this work?
We set targets for each school. The targets are put on the each principal’s report card, [which rates principals on things like math and reading scores and attendance.] The targets are different for each school and they vary based on how each school performed the year before. So certain schools that are already at best practice, we didn’t want to leave them without a target, so we set a target with minor growth like 5%, which is just a couple more meals per day. To schools that were significantly lower in participation last year, we set targets that are a little bit higher. We took things into consideration, like certain parts of the city are just not going to be able to feed as many children as 70% of the number of children who eat lunch. Especially in secondary schools, it is a harder population to reach because many of them just don’t get there in time to have breakfast.
I’m not aware of anybody else who has put breakfast participation on a performance report.
How did the decision to hold principals accountable for breakfast participation come about?
We wanted to see what could be done to increase breakfast participation because we understand the importance of breakfast as it relates to a child’s ability to learn. We pulled a lot of data from different schools and looked at how schools were performing and why like schools in similar areas with the same kind of demographics were not serving the same number of meals.
The superintendent, Dr. Arlene Ackerman, is very proactive when it comes to good nutrition and making sure children are provided with what they need to learn. We had considered doing this last year and putting breakfast participation on the report card as a performance indicator that each school receives annually. We want to be known as best practice when it comes to this and we felt that it was a good idea to hold schools accountable for increasing breakfast participation rates because we know from experience that higher participation rates are achievable when school leaders make a serious commitment to improving their breakfast programs.
We had a number of schools that are already best practice—according to the Food Research and Action Center, schools that serve breakfast greater than or equal to 70% of the children receiving free- and reduced-price lunches. We had another number of schools that are not far from that best-practice level and we felt that by setting performance targets—that are all achievable—that we would see an improvement in the number of children who are receiving breakfast. Now, we recognize there are certain children that we will just not ever be able to serve breakfast to, maybe they eat at home or they just aren’t hungry in the morning or they have a long commute and it’s tough to get to school in time. But for those who want it, we offer breakfast for free to all students.
Some people have been critical of this move, saying principals should be responsible for educating students. How do you respond to this?
The school district is holding schools accountable for higher participation rates because we know that higher participation rates are achievable when school administrators make a serious commitment to improving the breakfast program. If a child wants to eat breakfast, we are going to provide it for them because it helps their ability to learn.
Have the principals reached out to the foodservice department for help? How is the department helping principals achieve these targets?
Principals are reaching out to us, and we are prepared to provide whatever support we can. We aren’t asking the principals to do this on their own. We were out last year preparing the principals. We talked with them and had our field supervisors go into the schools. We asked what we could do to expand their breakfast programs.
We have nutrition educators in 176 of the schools and we are promoting breakfast and talking about the importance of good nutrition. We are incorporating nutrition education in the curriculum. We have a parent outreach program to help parents get their children ready to learn.
We have seen more principals coming on board with the breakfast in the classroom. That is not our preference. Our preference is to serve students in the cafeteria because it is more accountable and a more controlled environment. Second preference is hallway service where we have a foodservice person serving students. That’s not a possibility at all schools.
We are seeing an increase in breakfast participation as more principals are coming on board. We try to partner schools up in similar areas. So if a school is best practice, we tell the principal he can come over and visit the best-practice school to see what kind of program they are doing to see if it could work in their school.
What are your goals with this new approach?
Our goal is to become national best practice. We may not be able to achieve that on a school-by-school basis, but I am certain that we can achieve this as a district. We may not get it within the first year, but we will get a big chunk of it done this year. There are certain schools that the performance targets will not be achievable. We will work with them on a case-by-case basis. As long as the principals are working with us and we are doing everything we can to try to help them hit their target, then that’s fine and maybe the target will need to be adjusted.