Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lunch at 9:30?

This morning on MSNBC there was an interesting story on a school in Florida that is serving lunch at 9:30 AM.  Hamburgers, tater tots and corn dogs were on the menu. The announcers were aghast at this and wondered why it was happening.  They focused on a 9th grade academy and interviewed a few students and a nutritionist about it.  The nutritionist explained that school started classes at 7:00 AM and students might get up as early as 5:00 AM, and so may not eat breakfast, thus a meal at 9:30 is warranted.  The talking heads were still appalled and vowed to look into this further.
There are so many things wrong with this picture it’s hard for me to know where to start.  First I am glad that MSNBC carried the story, but so far they haven’t at all explored the reasons behind the phenomenon.  Let’s examine some facts about child development.  Children especially teenagers need more sleep than adults.  Studies have shown that teenagers’ internal clocks are naturally set to require more sleep and a later start time for best academic success.  Some have suggested that teens should not start class before 9:00 or 10:00.  Also, it’s no fable that breakfast is important.  After sleep your body, and especially your brain, needs nourishment and hydration.  Students who are hungry are distracted and do not learn as well.  So, starting at 7:00 Am is a terrible idea but feeding kids something is a good idea.
Next, let’s turn to what is likely happening to create this condition.  The fact that the school they focused on is a 9th grade academy is the first clue.  9th grade academies are a bad idea.  Every time a student transitions from one school to another, learning suffers.  Also 9th grade is a tough year in the best of circumstances.  When there are no upper classman around to model behavior, behavior suffers.  The reasons many districts go to a 9th grade academy model are not pedagogical but rather economical.  Their high schools are full or crowded so they break off the 9th graders to create room.  In this story, the 9th grade academy is also likely to be overcrowded driving the need for multiple lunches and hence early lunches.  It is also likely they are starting early to economize on their transportation costs.  We see a lot of districts scheduling buses for maximum efficiency thereby requiring some students – usually teenagers – to catch the bus at 6:00 AM or earlier.  Overall, I am willing to bet that the back story is that cost cutting and perhaps foundational underfunding is behind this story.
How the story could be different.
It doesn’t have to be this way, but change would require the school district to really alter its operations.  First of all it is healthier to graze rather than eat at prescribed times. It lowers obesity and keeps you fueled.  If food is available when you are hungry you don’t overeat as frequently.  Second, why do kids have to eat in a mass feeding in a cafeteria?  If the school was broken into smaller units and food service was distributed you may not have to eat at 9:30.  For this to happen though it would be necessary to rethink how you organize the school.  Rather than departments have smaller mixed learning units.  Create teacher and student teams and a feeling of community.  Have all of the conveniences for your small learning community easily at hand so that food isn’t a disruption, but rather a chance to build community.
Some would say “impossible!  It would be a mess, we can’t serve that way, this is progressive nonsense.”  But here, let me draw on my own experience.  I went to a Catholic K-8 school.  We had no lunch room only classrooms. We went to Mass every morning and for a time you needed to fast prior to receiving communion.  To accommodate this we ate breakfasts at our desks and of course later also ate lunch at our desks.  Our room was not a mess, and I can guarantee that in my class of 50 students there were the usual group of wilder kids.
The school should also be different.
When you think about how the story could be different it easy to see that the school should be different as well.  Rather than just rows of classrooms organized in departments with a big separate cafeteria space, organize the school into smaller units and distribute that cafeteria space to each unit.   Rather than departments, mix subjects in each of the smaller learning units so that kids aren’t wasting as much time traveling between classes.  Rather than a big central cafeteria space that “nobody owns” create smaller multiuse spaces owned by the small learning communities. 
Rethinking how we deliver education might just keep us from eating corndogs for breakfast.

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