Giving pupils a smart start for the day

Youth receive free breakfast in a program that seeks to improve class performance

September 17, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Timothy Viverette selected a small container of Cheerios and a pint of milk, and grabbed a spoon and a napkin.

The Magnolia Middle School seventh-grader took his breakfast back to his desk and began eating.

"Last year I didn't eat breakfast and I would always be starving by lunchtime," he said while opening his milk carton.

Breakfast has undergone a makeover at the Joppa school. Starting this year, the school began offering the Maryland Meals for Achievement Classroom Breakfast Program, which provides free breakfast in the classroom to students as a way to improve academic performance and attentiveness.

The menu includes bagels, cereal, a pancake-and-sausage item, a biscuit with sausage, egg and cheese, and yogurt. Previously the school offered breakfast in the cafeteria for $1.

The Maryland Department of Education oversees the program and covers the extra cost incurred by participating schools. The program began at six schools in Maryland in 1998 and has grown to 180 this year. Three schools in Harford joined in 2001, and six are participating this year.

To qualify for the program, more than 40 percent of the students at a school must be eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, said Gary Childress, the supervisor of food and nutrition for county schools. In addition to helping boost academic performance, the program is intended to provide breakfast for students who might not otherwise have regular access to a morning meal.

"I think it's important in helping the students start their school day off right," Childress said.

Magnolia, which has about 900 students, was added this year as a pilot middle school.

While awaiting word on whether the state would have enough funding to add Magnolia, Principal Joe Mascari said, some people were concerned that offering breakfast in the classroom could be a headache for the staff.

"We were worried about the mess kids might make with pancakes and syrup in the classrooms," he said. "And we were worried about the extra work that would go into seeing the program administered successfully. But it's actually been low maintenance."

Mascari and his staff are noticing the differences.

"The most dramatic change is the calmness in the morning," he said. "The halls are quieter before school starts."

That is a contrast to last year, said Karen Lockwood, the school's food services manager.

"We don't have a cafeteria full of children trying to grab breakfast in 10 minutes," Lockwood said. "We don't have to collect that money and we have no morning mess to pick up. That chaos is gone."

In previous years, students who wanted to eat breakfast before school had to get a pass signed by a teacher, go to the cafeteria, pay for and eat breakfast, and return to class in about 10 minutes.

Seventh-grader Roosevelt Hart said eating breakfast under those circumstances was too chaotic.

"Eating in the classroom is better because I don't have to deal with all the things going on in the cafeteria in the morning," Hart said. "And I don't have to worry about getting in trouble for talking or for sitting in the wrong seat. I just eat my breakfast, clear my trash and start school."

Student participation in the program is off to a good start, and Lockwood expects it to grow as the year progresses.

"During the last school year we had more than 200 students eating breakfast daily," Lockwood said. "This year, less than a month into the school year, we have 440 pupils eating breakfast. And when kids realize the breakfast is free and it gets colder outside, that number is probably going to exceed 600."

With more students getting a morning meal, their energy levels should rise, Lockwood said.

"Statistics show that a child who eats breakfast is a better learner," she said. "And for some of these kids, what they eat at school is all they eat. They get nothing to eat when they go home."

A study by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers reported that schools using the program reported an 8 percent decline in tardiness, a drop in suspensions, and improved state test scores.

The researchers also received favorable feedback from teachers and administrators who reported improved learning environments, student behavior and student attentiveness, the study said.

Starting the program required adding four food service workers and daily paperwork, but Lockwood expects the results to be worth the extra effort.

"The kids are getting the most important meal of the day, and it's hassle free," she said.

And some students agree.

"I like eating in my classroom, because I don't have to come to school and get a pass to go to the cafeteria and then eat real fast and worry about getting to my classroom before the bell rings," said Adam Schreiber, a seventh-grader from Edgewood. "Plus it's free."

Olivia Ward, a 12-year-old Joppatowne resident, said she prefers the classroom breakfasts because she too was too rushed in the mornings last year.

"I can eat any day I want now, no matter what else I have to do before school starts," she said.

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