Breakfast Participation Barely Up, Despite Holding Principals Accountable

by Christopher Paslay

Despite the opinions of child hunger advocacy groups, principals cannot replace parents.   

For child hunger advocates, it’s not enough that the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single city school. Principals must do more to coax the students into eating it.

In 2009, former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman enacted a policy that held principals accountable for the number of student breakfasts eaten in each school. Ackerman and child poverty advocates reasoned that including breakfast participation in a principal’s performance rating would significantly increase the number of students taking advantage of these free meals.

Nearly four years later, the percentage of school breakfasts eaten by Philadelphia public school children is up only 10 percent.  In 2009, about 30 percent of students eligible for a free breakfast took advantage, which is compared to about 40 percent today; 52 percent of elementary students, 42 percent of middle schoolers, and 28 percent of high schoolers eat the free school breakfast, according to an analysis released last week by Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

There’s no denying that nutrition has an impact on a child’s ability to learn. I’ve been teaching in Philadelphia for 16 years, and when my students are hungry, they have difficulty focusing on the lesson and staying on task. If I had my way, every child in the district would eat a hearty breakfast, complete with vitamins and dietary supplements to keep their minds sharp and their growing bodies strong and healthy.

But nutrition should not be the responsibility of school principals, despite the fact that groups like Public Citizens for Children and Youth argue otherwise.  Kathy Fisher, a director at PCCY, called for principals to get more involved in school breakfast participation.

Fisher Stated: “To just say, ‘Oh, well, the kids don’t want to participate,’ is not an acceptable answer to us.”

Interestingly, the role of parents doesn’t factor into the equation with groups like PCCY, or with the Philadelphia School District as a whole.  Historically, it seems as if the District has written off parents and the community altogether, deeming them too irresponsible to provide even the most basic guidance and care to their children.

Several years ago, to keep better track of subsidized school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to change the rules of its Universal Feeding Program, the free breakfast and lunch program offered solely in the Philadelphia School District. The program didn’t require students or their families to fill out applications to get subsidized meals, and USDA officials wanted to start requiring the forms for accounting purposes.

The School District and advocacy groups went berserk over the proposal. They insisted that forcing students to fill out an application for a free meal was too daunting – that parents of impoverished children were too overwhelmed to deal with complicated forms. The USDA ultimately relented.

Philadelphia School District officials are constantly talking about “raising the bar” when it comes to education and making academics more “rigorous.” Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced that the education reform train is leaving the station and everyone must get on board. Why, then, aren’t parents being asked to contribute?

I understand that filling out applications can be intimidating to some people, but why didn’t the District call on its parent ombudsmen back in 2009 to help struggling mothers and fathers learn the skill? So many things in life require an application – a driver’s license, a checking account, a credit card.

But the District didn’t want to be bothered with the inconvenience of working with parents. It’s better to keep students and their families in their comfort zone – quiet, pacified, hopelessly dependent.

Unfortunately, this is the attitude the District has taken when it comes to feeding students free breakfasts. The right thing would be to work with the community and educate citizens on the importance of nutrition. Free meals could be promoted on a grassroots level in Philadelphia’s impoverished neighborhoods, encouraging moms and dads to take part in their children’s health and schooling. Then, maybe, more kids would skip the Pepsi and bag of Doritos at the bus stop in the morning and get to school in time for the free apple juice and bagel with cream cheese.

But, unfortunately, District officials like Ackerman thought it was easier to blame the principals.  They thought wrong; the fact that breakfast participation has only increased a modest 10 percent – 60 percent of students still skip the free school breakfast – is proof.

Children rise to the level of expectations. If we made a true commitment to our students and their families, we could put a real dent in the cycle of poverty.

Inquirer editorial disparages principals, twists facts about breakfast program





by Christopher Paslay


In their recent editorial, School Breakfast Program, the Inquirer uses clever wording to once again suggest that Philadelphia public schools are failing to serve students free breakfast. 


Philadelphia principals are left to develop feeding programs as they see fit,” the Inquirer writes.  “Many are unwilling to restructure the school day to serve breakfast.”


This statement is inaccurate and intentionally misleading.  Instead of saying, Many principals are unwilling to forfeit instructional time and serve breakfast in class, the Inquirer insinuates that principals are not serving breakfast at all, which clearly isn’t the case; the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single school. 


The typical school breakfast in Philadelphia is served in the cafeteria in the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the instructional day begins.  The breakfast is FREE, and ALL students are eligible.


Of course, not all students are taking advantage of this free breakfast.  One problem is that breakfast—and nutrition in general—is not a priority in too many homes in the city.  Parents skip breakfast and so do their children. 


In addition, many students come to school late and miss the free breakfast, opting instead to drink sodas and eat bags of potato chips as they mingle on the corner with friends.


But the Inquirer fails to acknowledge this.  In fact, they go on to use a survey conducted during PSSA testing to further mislead readers:


“A Public Citizens for Children and Youth survey of 35 Philadelphia elementary schools found that 63 percent [of principals] changed their policy to make sure kids ate breakfast during test week,” the Inquirer states.  “Besides measuring academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the test results are used to judge principals’ performance. So, during test week, some principals took extra steps to provide breakfast at their schools.”


The key phrase here is took extra steps to provide breakfast at their schools. 


This sentence clearly suggests that principals are negligent when it comes to providing free breakfast to students, and that during PSSA test week, they “changed their policy” and agreed to feed their hungry children. 


This of course is not true; again, the district serves free breakfast to every child in every school. 


A more accurate way to convey the information would have been, So, during test week, some principals took extra steps to provide breakfast in class instead of simply offering it free of charge before school.


Later in their editorial, in a lame attempt to fill in the facts, the Inquirer acknowledges that the district does indeed provide a free breakfast to every child, and that many students simply aren’t taking advantage of the program.


“Every city school serves breakfast, and all students are eligible for the meal, regardless of income,” the Inquirer admits.  “Yet, only about 51,000 of the 165,000 district students take advantage.”


And who does the Inquirer blame for this?  Irresponsible parents?  The students themselves?  Of course not.  That would go against the newspaper’s politics.  The Inquirer absolves mothers and fathers of all blame and allows them to plead ignorance: Parents don’t take advantage of the breakfast program because they don’t know it exists.


The Inquirer instead blames principals.  It’s not enough that school leaders offer a free breakfast to every single child in their school.  Principals must also COAX them into eating it as well.  In fact, the Inquirer even recommends that schools chief Arlene Ackerman give principals their “marching orders” and hold them accountable when meals go uneaten. 


The arrogance of this is maddening.  If the Inquirer is so keen on feeding hungry children, why don’t they donate free advertising space in their newspaper to announce the district’s breakfast program to all the city’s “uninformed” parents?    


Or better still, why not run a public service message about the importance of nutrition, and encourage parents to get their children out of bed early enough to eat the healthy breakfast waiting for them free of charge in the school cafeteria?    


Classrooms are for learning, not eating.  Instructional time is limited.  Students and their families must learn to follow the most basic of routines, and acquire the life skills and discipline necessary to function in our highly structured 21st century society.      


District Must Expel 20 Students Involved in Sayre Brawl

by Christopher Paslay


It appears that the Philadelphia School District is finally getting serious about their “zero tolerance” policy for violence in schools.  According to a story in today’s Inquirer, “Philadelphia School District officials have vowed to expel the system’s most violent students, tighten codes for others, and attempt to streamline a dysfunctional, inconsistent disciplinary system.”


“We mean business,” district CEO Arlene Ackerman said, vowing to enforce the zero-tolerance policy to the letter of the law.  Yesterday, Ackerman sent out a letter to parents and students detailing this policy.  The heart of her letter reads as follows:


Effective immediately, school administrators are required to suspend a student or group of students for 10 days with intent to expel when there is reasonable and probable grounds to believe that a student or group of students has:

          –Assaulted an adult or another student

          –Committed or incited an act of violence

          –Possessed or has transported onto school property materials to utilize as potential weapons

          If a student commits offenses in any of the aforementioned categories he/she will neither remain at his/her present school nor will be transferred to another district school.  Instead, I will recommend that your students be immediately enrolled in an alternative school placement and, pending the result of an expulsion hearing by the School Reform Commission, will not be allowed to return to a district school for a minimum of one year.  Expulsions may be permanent.  


Mayor Nutter also supported this policy.  “We collectively—the city and the school district—are saying enough is enough,” Nutter said.  “How could no child have been expelled from the school system in four years is impossible for me to understand.” 


No expulsions in four years is not so hard to understand when you teach inside the district.  For starters, keeping tabs on suspensions and expulsions are part of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In order for a school to make Adequate Yearly Progress, suspensions must be kept to a minimum; this might be why suspensions were never enforced.


Second, it’s people like Sheila Simmons, education director at Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, who keep the school district’s zero-tolerance policy for violence stuck in neutral.  Simmons believes the district should put its energy into preventing discipline problems before they start, not “throwing kids out” or “locking kids away”.


Although Simmons seems to mean well, she obviously doesn’t understand the dynamic involved in managing hundreds of students on a daily basis, and the fact that a line must be drawn in the sand.  With the lack of parental and community involvement (and the overall moral degradation of urban society), a school can only give a child so many second chances; soon the education of the children who know how to follow rules and respect authority must be made a priority over the violent youth who continue to rob others of their right to learn.


Kudos to Dr. Ackerman, Mayor Nutter, and the SRC for making safety and discipline a priority in Philadelphia public schools.  Now let’s see if we get results.  The district can put its money where its mouth is and start by making an example of the 20 students who used violence against teachers, police officers and other students last week during a brawl at Sayre High School in West Philadelphia.  The brawl supposedly started when school officials refused to admit students into the building because of dress code violations. 


These students should be suspended expeditiously.  And their hearings should be made public so others in the district can truly see that the Mayor and the SRC mean business.


Let’s ALL enforce our district’s policy of zero-tolerance for violence.  Students, teachers and principals alike should stand up for safety and the rights of the children who want to learn, and stop allowing bullies and thugs to run our schools.