Friday, May 10, 2013

How Los Angeles shortened its school year by 17 days

If a school district abruptly cut 17 days from the school year, would anyone notice?

Of course! Parents, concerned about their children's education, would object. Taxpayers would question how their money was being spent. Political leaders would worry about how such severe cuts would impact our nation's future.

But within the past year, the Los Angeles school district quietly removed 17 days worth of instructional time from many of its schools, and the public barely noticed.

In California, state law requires school districts to offer 180 days of instruction annually. Just a few years ago, when Los Angeles schools were facing a budget crisis, the district won a waiver to temporarily cut its school year by five days -- but only after extensive public debate and hand-wringing. It returned to 180 days as soon as possible.

But cutting 17 days?  How did this happen?

It all comes down to breakfast.

At the start of the 2012-13 year, Los Angeles introduced an in-classroom breakfast program at 280 schools. So now, the first 30 minutes of each school day is spent eating, not learning.

Schools in L.A. and elsewhere have long offered before-school breakfast programs that provide free or reduced-price meals for students from low-income families. Those programs, in which the meal was served in the cafeteria, have been replaced in Los Angeles by the new in-classroom breakfasts.

Teachers report that the breakfasts, including clean-up time, take about 30 minutes (a figure confirmed by a Los Angeles Times reporter who observed the process). And the loss of 30 minutes is hardly insignificant.

An average elementary school day in Los Angeles schools is 5 hours, 7 minutes long (some days are longer, some shorter). Thirty minutes is nearly 10% of the day. Losing 30 minutes every day adds up to 17.5 days of lost instructional time each year. Do Los Angeles schools – or any school – have the luxury of losing that much instructional time?

Supporters of the program argue that fed children learn better than hungry children. But no one is disputing that. The question is whether the in-classroom program is the best way to make sure children eat in the morning.

Strangely, no one seems to know how many children were coming to school without breakfast before the start of the in-class meal program. Supporters note that 29% of children were getting the school breakfast when it was served before class and that now almost all are (not surprising since the breakfast is basically mandatory). But who says that those children in the other 71% weren't simply eating breakfast at home? 

Besides the lost instructional time, the in-class program raises a host of other problems.

Teachers say that time before school that they previously devoted to preparing lessons is now spent organizing the pre-packaged breakfasts. They also say the meals leave a mess that they have to clean up and that food crumbs and spills attract bugs and vermin.

It's hard enough attracting quality teachers (and keeping them) in L.A.'s troubled district but now they're being turned into part-time busboys and exterminators.

Teachers also say the meals have included rotten fruit and expired food.

Now, with breakfast in the classroom, every student eats breakfast at school, whether they're eligible for the discounted program or not. Indeed, they get school breakfast even if their parents don't want them to have it. Many students now eat two breakfasts   one at home, one at school. Childhood obesity, anyone?

The strange result of this is that the school district is now encouraging parents not to feed their children at home. Want to serve your child a homemade breakfast?  Don't do it, says the school district. Like to have a family meal with your children in the morning? Skip it, says the school district.

There is no disputing that schoolchildren need breakfast. But the negatives of the in-classroom program are overwhelming. Rather than gutting our already overburdened educational calendar, what we need is to educate parents about the many pluses of eating breakfast, preferably at home, but in a before-school program if necessary.


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