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.