The Other 60 Percent

School breakfast economics add up

Members of the Adams City High School Student Council earned $200 to help defray Homecoming expenses last fall, and they did it during school hours without having to sell a single candy bar.

Fruit and yogurt baskets are one of the classroom breakfast options in Denver.

They earned the money by spending a few minutes before class each morning for two weeks delivering breakfast to their classmates.

What’s more, ROTC has done it. The football team has done it. The cheerleaders have done it.

Delivering healthy breakfasts – as opposed to selling junk food – has become a valued fundraising activity at the school, thanks to some out-of-the-box thinking by school officials.

It’s not just student clubs who are benefiting from the Adams 14 School District’s decision last year to make breakfast universally available to all students, for free, during their first class of the day.

Increasing numbers of school officials throughout Colorado are concluding that free breakfast-in-the-classroom programs not only make good sense nutritionally, they make good sense financially and academically as well.

Weighing the costs of free breakfast for all

The financial benefits of universal free breakfast outweigh the costs if at least 40 percent of students at a given school qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, officials say.

The key is getting students to actually eat breakfast, which is difficult – even when it’s free – when it’s served in the cafeteria before classes begin.

Schools who have moved breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom have seen sales triple to quadruple to quintuple. They’ve gone from serving a handful of hungry kids willing to confront the social stigma of eating in the cafeteria before class to making breakfast a part of the school culture, enjoyed by all, including the adults.

Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America and a consultant to school districts trying to heathfully transform their meal programs, encourages school officials to do the math. She’s created a “Breakfast Bucks” worksheet to help schools determine if this is a financial winner for them.

Schools with significant numbers of low-income students are reimbursed $1.80 per meal for students who qualify for free lunch, $1.50 per meal for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch, and 27 cents for all other students. With an average per plate food-cost of 80 cents, there’s money to be made by pushing breakfast.

“Significant enhancement to a food service department’s revenue can be generated by breakfast-in-the-classroom programs,” she said. “It’s simple, it’s affordable and it doesn’t make a mess.”

Colorado still lags behind other states, despite progress

Katherine Moos, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, says that organization’s goal is to see 130,000 Colorado youngsters eating school breakfast by 2015.

“We are 44th in the number of students who qualify for free breakfast who actually eat it.”

Last year, following a concerted effort to boost school breakfasts, it was up 29 percent over the year before, to 108,000.

But Colorado continues to lag behind most states.

“We are 44th in the number of students who qualify for free breakfast who actually eat it,” Moos said.

Yet she believes the benefits to schools who do increase the number of breakfasts served can be astounding.

“One school in Aurora who implemented a breakfast-in-the-classroom program in April reported their school nurse visits dropped 50 percent. Another Aurora school reported many less behavior problems,” Moos said.

Trend now toward serving high schools

One trend in particular that Moos is seeing is implementing breakfast-in-the-classroom at the high school level. Feeding teenagers – especially in the morning – brings its own particular set of challenges not faced by elementary schools, but Moos and others are convinced it’s a path most high schools will eventually travel.

Wheeled breakfast carts make it possible to serve breakfast to 950 students at Pueblo's Centennial High School in less than 10 minutes.

Pueblo’s Centennial High School has become a national model for breakfast-in-the-classroom. After it launched its program last August, the number of students eating breakfast went from 50 to 950, practically overnight.

At Centennial, food service workers load up a fleet of breakfast carts, which become mobile serving lines. Each cart serves four to five classes.

“We push the cart to the door and say ‘Breakfast!’ and the students come out, circle the cart, and pick up their items,” said Jill Kidd, director of food services for Pueblo City Schools. “As they do, we count them. It only takes a minute or two, and they go right on with the learning process.”

The entire school gets fed in about 10 minutes, she said. Kidd feels that’s an incredibly smart way to invest 10 minutes out of the day.

  • Read an article in USA Today profiling Centennial High School’s breakfast-in-the-classroom program.

“About 50 percent of all kids on any given day haven’t eaten,” she said. “You can offer them the best curriculum and the best teaching techniques and they won’t learn a thing because they’re asleep, their stomach hurts, and their attention span is shorter. The principal at Centennial understands the benefits of that 10 minutes, to let the students eat while they continue to teach.”

Experience has taught Kidd not to try serving breakfast to teenagers before 8:30 a.m.

“Before then, the kids aren’t awake, and they’re just not into breakfast,” she said. “If we try to serve before 8:30, participation will be about 50 percent lower, even when we take breakfast to them.”

After 14 years, breakfast in Adams 14 finally takes off

The Adams 14 School District, which includes Commerce City, has offered free breakfast to all for the past 14 years. But only when it began offering breakfast in every classroom in all its schools, beginning last year, did the district see significant numbers of students partaking.

Learn more

“We were serving maybe 20 percent of our kids, and now we’re serving 95 percent,” said Cindy Veney, manager of nutrition services for the district. “It really has financially benefited the district. I see it as a win/win situation all the way around.”

The district’s nutrition services department has gone from being a break-even operation to running about $600,000 in the black. The extra cash has allowed Veney to pay students to deliver the breakfasts to the classrooms.

Student clubs sign up for breakfast delivery duty for up to two weeks at a time. Club members come early, meet in the cafeteria, and pick up breakfast coolers to distribute to every classroom. In exchange, they’re paid $20 a day. They complete their delivery rounds before the first bell sounds, so they don’t miss class.

With this easy money-making option, clubs no longer have to sell candy bars to raise funds for projects.

“Obviously, it takes the football team less time to deliver the breakfasts than it takes the six-member student council, but they know that in advance,” said Veney.

In addition, students from the high schools’ Like Skills classes for developmentally challenged students earn money retrieving the coolers and washing them out.

“Yes, we’ve had some waste,” Veney said. “We’ve had to purchase some different foods to find something everyone likes, and we’ve worked with our custodial staff and teachers to appease everyone. But it’s working well.”

Veney, too, has seen impacts other than simply financial.

“There have been days the nurses have come out and said ‘Do we have kids in school today?’ Because they no longer have a line of kids out the door with tummy aches and headaches. They don’t see that anymore. Kids are starting their days much more smoothly. And discipline problems are down.”

Experts says breakfast in the classroom also increases attendance and decreases tardiness.

“It’s fascinating to me when principals say they don’t have time to serve breakfast in the classroom every day, but they certainly make sure kids get fed on CSAP day,” Adamick said. “Does that make sense? Kids are happy when we feed them.”

Suggestions for school districts on saving money on school meals

Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America and a consultant to school districts, is a proponent of avoiding processed foods in favor of less-expensive items that allow local cooks to cook meals from scratch. But beyond avoiding processed foods, there are other ways schools can cut back on meal-related expenses without cutting back on the quality of food. Among her suggestions:

  • Avoid individually wrapped portions whenever possible. Districts must pay for those wrappers, and for the labor it takes to wrap each serving.
  • Individual condiment packets costs 2 to 8 cents apiece. Districts can save a tremendous amount of money buying condiments in bulk and putting them in squeeze jars.
  • Canned beans cost 6 cents per serving more than dried beans.
  • This is controversial, but a serving of flavored milk typically costs a half to two cents more per serving than unflavored milk. Additionally, milk served in plastic containers costs 5 to 8 cents more than that served in old-fashioned carboard cartons.
  • Don’t waste money on desserts that you could spend contracting with a local farmer to supply fresh, locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit the number of entrees offered.
  • Use washables rather than disposables. The initial investment might be more, but in the long run you’ll save money, and you’ll be providing a local employee with work washing dishes rather than sending the money to a far-off factory that produces disposables.
  • Take inventory regularly. In fact, have the kitchen staff at different schools cross-inventory each other’s kitchens. You’ll get more accurate counts.

Read Kate Adamick’s article in The Atlantic on food processing costs associated with the USDA commodity foods program.

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood:

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”