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Teachers union wants a say in L.A. Unified's classroom breakfast program

New program aims to make sure hunger doesn't impede students' learning. But the logistics concern the teachers union.

September 09, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy shares breakfast with student Luisa Garcia at Figueroa Street Elementary in South Los Angeles, one of the schools testing the in-classroom breakfast program.
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy shares breakfast with student Luisa Garcia… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

It started out as a way to make sure students don't begin their school day hungry, a factor in lower academic achievement.

Since Los Angeles Unified began serving breakfast in classrooms at 20 schools in January, the percentage of children involved has zoomed to 84%, according to David Binkle, the district's interim director of food services. That compares with 29% of students who participate in the district's regular breakfast program in the cafeteria before school starts, he said.

But as the district begins expanding the classroom breakfast program to 279 schools this year, United Teachers Los Angeles has asked for the matter to be brought to the bargaining table.

Union official Juan Ramirez said teachers believe it's a worthwhile program but are irked that the district never talked to them about it before rolling it out. Teachers are also concerned about spills, trash and the loss of instructional time, he said.

"Teachers were left in the dark," said Ramirez, the union's elementary schools vice president. "It's just the way the district does things. There's resentment about the lack of respect."

The request to negotiate has puzzled and surprised L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. "It's incomprehensible as to why we would negotiate a student's nutritional needs," he said.

Schools are reporting better attendance, less tardiness and fewer trips to the nurse's office since the program was launched by L.A. Unified, the nonprofit Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and other partners, Binkle said.

The program, open to all students in the schools that offer it, has also helped bring $6 million in federal reimbursements to L.A. Unified, he said.

At Figueroa Street Elementary in South L.A., the program has had its share of kinks. Shadette Loper, a first-grade teacher, said there were plenty of accidents the first few weeks: spilled milk, leaking juice bags, cereal flying when little hands inartfully opened the boxes.

But the students appear to have settled into a routine now. One recent day in her classroom, more than 20 students sat down to a breakfast of cereal, cinnamon crackers, fruit juice and milk that had been laid out in advance by two student volunteers known as "sheriffs." They got through their meal without so much as one mishap, threw their own trash away, put away their place mats and buckled down for the day's lessons.

The process took about 30 minutes, however — one of UTLA's concerns. "This is a big issue for teachers," Ramirez said. "There's no way they can teach all of the academic content being required in reading, writing and math because of the time constraints."

At Figueroa, Loper said she tries to make the most of breakfast time by taking attendance and calling up students individually to go over their homework. Other teachers use the time for related lessons — how many ounces in one carton of milk, for instance.

Overall, Loper said, she thinks the program has helped her students.

"Before, they would complain about headaches or ask, 'Is it time for lunch?'" she said. "Now you're seeing everyone has an opportunity to eat before they start the school day."

Figueroa Principal Tanya Stokes-Mack said the district has improved the menu with more frequent servings of hot meals, such as burritos, and less cold cereal, which has gone from three times a week to once. The district is also providing wipes for hands and tables, items she had to buy herself last year.

The biggest outstanding issue, she said, is handling the extra trash generated at a time when janitorial staffs have been reduced. For now, she said, parent and community volunteers have stepped up to help out.

About a third of Figueroa students were eating breakfast at school previously; now, that number is up to 91%, according to district data.

Stokes-Mack said tardiness is down and attendance is slightly up. And she speculates that the breakfast program may even have helped her lowest-performing students improve their test scores this year. The percentage of students scoring below and far below basic skills in reading dropped at every grade level, she said.

She said some teachers were initially wary of the program but most are generally on board now.

Ramirez said the union, too, wants to find a way to make it work.

"It's a good program — students learn more when they are fed," Ramirez said. "The question is the logistics of how this is going to be done."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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