When a child comes into the office morning after morning complaining of a stomachache, most school principals would probably assume it's just a ploy to cut class.
But George Cottrell didn't. As a result, he discovered a relatively easy way to get rid of stomachaches and significantly improve the students' test scores at the same time: Feed them breakfast.
More than two years ago, as principal of Carl E. Gilbert Elementary School in Buena Park, Cottrell realized--with the help of some observant teachers--that a good part of students' midmorning stomachaches were a symptom of another problem.
"The teachers were telling me that a lot of the kids didn't have anything to eat for breakfast," he says. "So one day, I did an informal survey."
He went from classroom to classroom and asked how many children had eaten breakfast. "Thirty percent of them hadn't had anything," he says.
He checked again a few days later, and got similar results. So Cottrell started looking into the possibility of a breakfast program.
He had heard for years about various research studies showing a link between breakfast and school performance. So he decided to measure for himself.
The results were dramatic. The first year, the students who ate breakfast at school scored 18% higher on the California Test of Basic Skills, a statewide standardized achievement test, than those who were eligible for the meal but didn't take advantage of it. The second year showed a 10% difference in scores between the children who ate breakfast and those who didn't.
The district has since expanded the program to include Whitaker and Beatty elementaries. At Beatty, where Cottrell is now principal, "we served 175 students the first day, 215 the next, and every day it just goes up," says Verla Albin, the district's director of food services.
School breakfasts are a national trend, says Leah Robinson, president of the Southern California Food Service Assn. and director of food services for the Moreno Valley School District in Riverside County.
"Breakfast is here to stay," she says. "It started in schools with a lot of needy students, because if they qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, they also qualify for a free or reduced breakfast. But we've been surprised at the number of students who come through and pay the full price.
"Actually, there's been a national push on getting more breakfasts into the schools," Robinson says.
The Department of Agriculture "feels it's very important," she says.
Breakfast programs are relatively inexpensive to set up, Albin says, because the equipment is already in place: "The only extras for us are the food and labor. And the reimbursement they get from the National School Breakfast Program covers our costs."
Jack Townsend, Buena Park superintendent, says: "It's just a fact of life that in today's society, many boys and girls come to school without an adequate breakfast. Whether it's mom and dad having to get up and go to work, especially if they have a long commute, or a single-parent family, that's just the way it is. And if the children haven't eaten, they're not able to concentrate in the classroom.
"You also have children who are left unsupervised in the morning, and they may go down to the convenience store for a soda and a candy bar. That gives them a sugar high, but then they crash about 10 a.m."
"By the end of the morning," says Mary Fuhrman, a fifth-grade teacher at Beatty, "a lot of kids are having a really tough time."
She polled her class last year and found that "less than half of them had eaten breakfast. They would be hungry, so they would load up on snacks at break time. Then by lunch time, they'd be out of money. So it caused problems all day."
At the Buena Park schools, breakfast is also a learning experience, Albin says. "We allow the children to choose an item from each of the four food groups. The choices vary each day, but there are always several in each group," she said.
Signs identifying the food groups--cereal and grains, meat and protein, fruit and vegetable and dairy products--are posted on the sneeze guard in the serving line at Beatty, color coded to help younger children who aren't yet able to read.
"It takes a little more time this way, but the children like it better, and it helps them learn about nutrition," Albin says. "And we have very, very little plate waste."
Albin says the foods offered at both breakfast and lunch are much lower in fat and sodium than the school cafeteria foods of even a few years ago.