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Charting the course

Profile image for By Britney Tabor
By Britney Tabor

Students participate in rehearsal of pilot breakfast program

It’s 8:15 a.m. Thursday at Hodge Elementary School and breakfast for the day has concluded, but students and staff are already preparing for next week’s breakfast.

In one of two dry-run rehearsals, students prepare for the universal breakfast program the school will begin piloting Tuesday. Through the program, each of the school’s nearly 700 students will receive a free sack breakfast and milk. The district intends to roll out a similar pilot program tentatively at the start of the spring semester at Evers Park Elementary, according to district officials. The pilot will conclude at the end of the 2013-14 year.

“We hope that we eventually have a smooth process with almost all of our students at the pilot campuses having breakfast before they start their school day,” said Robin Wantland, the district’s child nutrition services director. “We’re not going to require that [students] have a breakfast. If they want to eat at home, that’s their choice. But the breakfast will be available to all students.”

Signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry on May 24, state Senate Bill 376 amends the Education Code section relating to breakfast programs and mandates that a school district campus or open-enrollment charter participating in a national school breakfast program that has 80 percent or more of students qualifying for a free and reduced-price breakfast must offer free breakfast to all students beginning in the 2014-15 school year. The bill goes on to state that the education commissioner may grant a waiver of the requirement for one year to a district or open-enrollment charter if its school board or governing board votes to request a waiver.

“The thing about the universal breakfast program is that we want to make sure that our students have all the resources necessary to learn at their greatest potential, and that includes being properly nourished,” Denton schools Superintendent Jamie Wilson said.

According to data prepared by Denton school officials, as of Sept. 25, the district had 10,107 students receiving meals for free and 1,511 students receiving meals at a reduced rate. According to data as of Sept. 25, Hodge had 80.26 percent of its students receiving meals for free and or reduced rates, Evers had a percentage of nearly 77 and the district as a whole had more than 44 percent of students receiving free and or reduced meals.

Wantland said the percentage of students receiving free or reduced meals changes daily. Percentages of students receiving free and or reduced meals for this week were unavailable.

This school year, Hodge and Evers Park elementary schools will each receive grants from Action for Healthy Kids to pilot a universal breakfast program, so district officials have decided to see how the program will work at those two campuses to prepare for when Senate Bill 376 will be enforced next school year.

Total, Action for Healthy Kids — an organization that fights childhood obesity, physical inactivity and undernourishment — is distributing $5,000 grants to 100 schools in 20 states, where the student population includes 60 percent or more of students qualifying for free and/or reduced lunch, to launch its Universal Breakfast for Healthy Kids campaign. The campaign is funded by the Walmart Foundation, according to an Action for Healthy Kids media release.

Funding for the Universal Breakfast for Healthy Kids campaign, which is part of the Action for Healthy Kids’ School Grants for Healthy Kids, will allow the pilot schools to establish or expand current school breakfast programs. Hodge and Evers elementary schools are two of five schools in Texas receiving grants to pilot Universal Breakfast for Healthy Kids campaign.

“One of the advantages of the grant is that it gives us an opportunity to form our own best practices in Denton that we’ll be able to apply to whatever schools meet the criteria at the time of [Senate Bill] 376 implementation and with [the Texas Department of Agriculture’s] guidance of how to implement that,” said Robert Bostic, assistant superintendent for academic programs. “Because it’s a pilot year, we’re going to work collaboratively with each other to learn as much as we can.”

Taking what it learns from the pilot programs at Hodge and Evers elementary schools, district officials will collect data on student participation, plate waste and the program’s effectiveness, according to a presentation made at a Sept. 10 board meeting. District officials also intend to identify, discuss and implement areas where it might improve throughout the year, according to the presentation.

According to officials at Hodge Elementary, when students arrive Tuesday, kindergarteners and first-graders are to go to the cafeteria; students in second through fourth grades are to go to the gym; and fifth-graders will sit in the fifth-grade hall. Breakfast cards will be distributed to students every morning, and by individual class, they will make their way through cafeteria lines to collect a sack breakfast. All students, including those who opt not to eat breakfast at school will go through the line together to keep each class intact, according to school officials. At the end of the line, they will pass their breakfast cards to a cashier.

Students will exit the cafeteria with breakfast in hand that they will eat in their classrooms, said Sam Teel, school nurse. Teel said students arriving late at school will be allowed to go to the cafeteria up to 9 a.m. to collect breakfast.

Sam Kelley, principal at Hodge, said she’s hopeful students will have the process of collecting a breakfast in the morning down within 10 days of the pilot program being launched.

Information about the universal breakfast program was shared with parents in letters sent home and at a PTA meeting held Thursday. Bonnie Peeters, PTA president, said most questions from parents were about how the program would impact the beginning of the school day and those students who eat at school and those who do not.

Peeters said she’s interested to see how the program pans out. She has two children who attend school at Hodge who eat breakfast at home, and she’s also interested to see if they will continue to eat at home or decide to eat breakfast at school as a result.

“I’m interested to see how it will work, logistically,” Peeters said of the program. “I think it will be interesting to see how they will facilitate that.

“I think it kind of remains to be seen how it works out, and that will kind of help me form my opinion.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.