Despite the noise, crowds and chatty friends surrounding her in the Arundel High School cafeteria, Aleshia Highland was finishing her physics homework and her lunch.
The senior from Odenton planned to spend the last half of her new 50-minute lunch period with a book club called the Socratic Cafe. She couldn't join when the group met after school because she has to catch a bus.
The extended lunch period also gives her extra time after school.
"It eases up on homework that you have to do at home," she said.
Last week, Arundel became the first public high school in Anne Arundel County to double its lunch period from 25 minutes. The goal is to give students more time during the school day to spend with teachers and receive extra help.
To get the extra time, Principal Sharon Stratton said, the Gambrills school eliminated the four staggered lunch periods over two hours. She also shaved eight minutes from the morning advisory groups and took three minutes from instructional time.
Stratton got the idea several years ago at a conference where she met a principal from Colorado who was using it. At the time, she thought that having all 2,000 students eat in 50 minutes would be too chaotic.
Since then, Stratton has learned about other schools in Maryland that have tried longer lunches. She formed a committee of students, teachers and parents to study the issue a year ago, and the members visited three schools with extended lunches, James Hubert Blake and Montgomery Blair high schools in Montgomery County, and Laurel High School in Prince George's County.
To address possible concerns about whether there would be more opportunities for fights, school officials decided to adjust the lunch concept by giving the time period more structure.
Students get two 25-minute periods to do what they want but are encouraged - sometimes required - to spend at least one of those periods being tutored, taking makeup tests, preparing for the High School Assessments or the SAT, studying or doing club activities.
The school has made accommodations that allow everyone to eat in the compressed time. It spent more than $6,000 to buy cash registers that will be used at new food kiosks set up around the school. Students can still eat in classrooms or head to the cafeteria, but the cafeteria seats only 500 students. For now, the school is making use of long tables with a cash register and food warmers at one end.
To allay fears about students dumping trash in classrooms, Stratton has barred food from areas with carpeting, such as the computer labs. She also has had additional trash cans placed throughout the building.
Students seemed to love the extra time last week, although they were still getting used to the food arrangements. Many still gravitated to the cafeteria during the first 25 minutes, causing long lines. Stratton is trying to encourage students to eat during the second period and spread out through the building.
Allison Bailey, a senior from Crofton, said she likes having clubs able to meet during the day. She remembers how hard it was to participate in after-school activities when she didn't have a car and said the new schedule promotes a sense of community because students can see their friends.
"There is definitely more of a unified atmosphere," Allison said.
Other students had less choice in how to spend the time. Students who had not done their homework in Spanish III class Thursday morning were required to go to the media center for the last half of their lunch. Their teacher, Lynn Layton, helped those who were struggling and chided those who were talking.
Layton said some students get stuck during a homework assignment and quit. The extra time allows those students to get a second chance with individualized help instead of getting a zero.
Teachers said they like having the time during the day to meet with students. Often, the students who need extra help could not stay after school because of work or bus schedules, said Janet Epple, a sophomore biology teacher.
"It's going to solve many problems," she said.
Club time during the day also gives teachers more planning time after school, said Megan Twiddy, who teaches Allison's Advanced Placement environmental science class. As the moderator for three clubs, it was difficult for the student to balance that time with going to faculty meetings.
Stratton said the unified lunch period makes more work for her staff but that it will pay off in higher grades and less stress. She plans to monitor how well students do on their report cards to see if there are improvements.
As long as the new schedule doesn't lead to fights, the longer lunch period is here to stay, Stratton said.
"This is it," she said. "This is our way now."