School administrators make more room for breakfast

At Warhill High School, Janet Hichman's blender starts whirring at 6:55 a.m., and it hardly stops for the next hour.

The demand for the school's newest breakfast offering — fruit smoothies — sets a high bar for Hichman's mixing machine.

Breakfast at Warhill used to be a slow-paced affair. Students would roll in around 7 a.m. and have to be in class 15 minutes later, leaving little time to eat. Before the end of last semester, Hichman and the kitchen staff would serve between 75 and 80 students.

A schedule change at the beginning of February hiked that number to a daily total of about 200, said Pam Dannon, a registered dietitian with Williamsburg-James City County Schools School Health Initiative Program.

Occasionally that number exceeds 300 breakfast-eaters in one morning, Dannon said.

Principal Jeffery Carroll moved a 30-minute block set aside for tutoring, getting homework help or making up missed work from the 10 o'clock hour, to the first 30 minutes of the school day. Starting Feb. 6 that flexible Academic Enrichment Period moved to 7:15 each morning.

"We've always identified time as the barrier to school breakfast participation," Dannon said. "We had a 15-minute service window before, now we have a 55-minute service window, so we're making access easier."

Students are still required to show up by 7:15 a.m. or be counted tardy, but now they have an extended period in which to grab breakfast.

Options

When combined with a grain, a fruit-and-yogurt smoothie in considered a meal and counts toward federal reimbursement for those qualifying for free-and-reduced price meals.

Freshman Jack Morris grabbed a fresh triple berry smoothie Monday morning, just after the doors rolled up around 7 a.m. Before the extended hours, he said he never ate breakfast at school.

"It helped a lot," Jack said. "Kids get to sleep later, get to be awake a little bit longer, and the coffee helps them stay awake."

Other options include a hot breakfast of pancakes or French toast, or cereal. Items like coffee and tea can be purchased a la carte.

Sophomore Peaches Branscome said she usually picks up a coffee.

"I get food sometimes," she said. "I think (eating breakfast) gets us ready for the morning."

Warhill introduced the smoothies with the schedule change. To say they were a hit would be an understatement, according to food service manager Odessa Jackson.

"On the first day it was really, really busy," Jackson said. "After they tried it the first day everybody just started coming in every single day."

While Hichman spends the morning mixing fruit, yogurt and ice, Jackson stands across the table, diligently pouring each cup, topping it off with a dollop of whipped cream and a lid.

They can hardly keep up with demand; the teens grab each smoothie almost as soon as Jackson places them on the steel kitchen counter, just beyond the coffee cart.

Jackson does it all with a smile and cheerful "hello" to students passing through.

"I think it's a good thing, a really good thing. … I tell (Hichman), we've already done a day's work doing this, then we have to start all over with lunch," Jackson said. "I think it's a great deal, a lot of benefits for everybody. It's worth it."

On time more often

"Before we looked at this, 80 percent of students who were eligible for free/reduced price breakfast were not participating," Dannon said. "We knew we had some barriers to address — 80 percent of kids walking away from a free meal."

Carroll said the schedule change was motivated by the drive to get students eating breakfast, including from as high up at the governor's office, who held a breakfast challenge at the end of last year. The goal was for schools to bump up their breakfast participation numbers.

The change hasn't resulted in any costs increases because the staff was already there serving breakfast, schools spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said.

Warhill has done that, and Dannon said she hopes to reap the benefits in Warhill that other districts around the country have seen: higher attendance rates, better math scores and increased graduation rates.

Another bonus to the new schedule is fewer students being marked as tardy, Carroll said. Not only are the students showing up earlier for breakfast, but any issues with late buses or pre-school stops is taken care of during the Academic Enrichment Period instead of instructional time.

"What we've seen and anecdotal from parents is that it's decreasing tardies, kids are wanting to come for breakfast," Carroll said. "I've seen fewer Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Chik-fil-A coffee cups walking around — that was a typical tardy."

Warhill may not be the only one to change.

Carroll said he pitched the time-change to Superintendent Olwen Herron as a pilot program. If it goes well, Dannon said, she'd like to work with Lafayette and Jamestown toward a similar time expansion.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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