Kingston schools’ free lunch for all plan paying off

The Kingston City School District is entering the third straight year of offering free breakfast and lunch for all students in four of its seven elementary schools, a program that’s been so successful that the district recently dropped a 25-cent charge in all other buildings for students eligible for reduced-price meals.

Superintendent Paul Padalino said that the success of the program at John F. Kennedy, George Washington, Chambers and Harry L. Edson elementary schools is important, with as many as 85 percent of students in some buildings are eligible for free and reduced breakfast and lunch under federal rules.

“The number of students who have free and reduced lunch is as high as its ever been,” Padalino said. “It is increasing participation. We’re seeing more kids eating breakfast and lunch now that we have the program. We’ll continue doing it, and we’ll probably see more schools in that situation here in Kingston.”

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Students eligible for reduced price meals at Kingston High School, both J. Watson Bailey and M. Clifford Miller middle schools, and at Edward R. Crosby, Robert Graves and Ernest C. Myer elementary schools will have the 25-cent charge waived for the upcoming school year.

The policy was initially approved for the 2015-16 school year by the school board in June 2015, and was adapted by the district over the summer.

Padalino said enrollment remains one of the biggest challenges for the program. “It’s always an issue,” he said. “We want to make sure we get the letters out there early, and in a language people speak. Making sure our social workers and guidance people know who is the one student or family they need to make an extra call to. We put it up on the website, but maybe all parents don’t read the website. And that’s where the boots on the ground make a huge difference. Our teachers, our social workers, our principals, our guidance counselors, they know who those kids are. Some parents might prefer paying money they can’t afford than filling out the forms.”

One of the goals is to ensure there’s no stigma surrounding participation in the program. “Every student has a code, so whether you pay or don’t pay, you can put money on an account online,” Padalino said. “When I was in school, you knew who the kids with free and reduced lunch were, and it’s not like that anymore. There’s no stigma. And if we can get it to a place that every student gets a free lunch, it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Padalino said the conversation at the national level in 2017 has shifted from concern about nutrition to a dispute over whether or not being hungry is a deterrent to focusing on learning. That concept made headlines in mid-March when President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, in defending the possibility of removing funding from the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, said there was no evidence that they actually worked.

“They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better at school,” Mulvaney said during a press conference. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”

Padalino said he strongly disagreed with Mulvaney’s take, adding that in his experience, most educators feel the same.

“These things that come up are things that teachers and administrators known all along,” Padalino said. “If a kid is hungry, they’re not learning. If a kid is hungry maybe they’re not paying attention, and maybe they’re misbehaving. We all know that. For someone at a high level to say there’s no evidence students can’t learn when they’re hungry. I’ve got 22 years of experience [in education] that tells me, hungry kids in the classroom are not learning.”

A 2014 report from the Centers for Disease Control on health and academic achievement agreed, citing “increased academic grades and standardized test scores, reduced absenteeism, and improved cognitive performance” for students who received breakfast at school through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) School Breakfast Program. The study conversely found that skipping, or not being able to afford, breakfast was linked to “decreased cognitive performance (e.g., alertness, attention, memory, processing of complex visual display, problem solving) among students.” The study further concluded that students who generally come to school hungry tend to receive lower overall grades, are absent or tardy more often than other students, and are more likely to fail courses or repeat grades entirely.

Padalino said that at the school level, educators have been trying to combat that for years.

“Most teachers have something in their drawer,” he said. “Most principals have a cupboard in their office with food in it. I always did. And sweatshirts for kids who need them. These are things that we’ve been doing for so long, and they’re only now getting national attention. I bet I could go into 20 of my teachers’ elementary school bottom drawers in their desk, they’d all have a snack for a kid who hadn’t eaten that day. That’s something that we just do.”

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