It’s lunchtime at Anthony Elementary, a public school in a Leavenworth, Kansas. That’s a town where the main business is a federal prison, and most kids live below the poverty line. Two years ago, Anthony Elementary’s cafeteria was a noisy, disorderly and rowdy place. It was supervised by overworked lunchroom aides, as teachers grabbed a half hour break away from the students. Today, lunch is served in the classrooms, by the teachers. As teacher Annie Todd finishes handing out meals to her third graders, she says to them, “Why don’t we have a moment of silence? Put your napkins in your lap.”
When one of the girls continues whispering to a friend, Todd calmly reminds her, “Moment of silence, Aspen,” and when the girls are silent, she tells the whole class, “Okay, you may eat quietly.”
As they sit, eating lunch with Miss Todd, the 9 year olds recall their former cafeteria days, full of shoving, shouting and stolen dessert. One boy says many of the memories still sting, such as when he says, “I ended up not being able to eat the cookie. I was mad, cause it looked good. Everybody else got to eat it. It wasn’t fair.” Today, he’s eating the burger first, and some vegetables on his plate. Here with his teacher, it’s safe to save the cookie for last.
Down the hall, in the fourth grade class, Esther Devault and her students are also eating lunch together, as they talk about movies, recess, and the rules they’ve learned as they dine together. The children say they like getting to know their teacher, and one girl says there’s other things they know better these days. “We learn our manners in here,” she says, as their teacher, Ms. Devault lists some of those lessons: “Always use your napkin, keep your napkin in your lap, don’t talk with your mouth full . . .”
A boy adds, “Stay in your seat . . . ”
Teasingly, his teacher says, “stay in your seat, one of your best traits.” She grins at him, and he grins back. And he IS staying in his seat, using his fork, and also his napkin, as the conversation continues about all kinds of things.
For the principal of Anthony Elementary, Janine Kempker, this half-hour of relaxed conversation is what a school lunchtime should be. “It’s like the family dinner,” she says. “That’s when you get to know people, and if you’re in a classroom, you’re going to spend six, seven hours a day . . . I think you should really get to know them.”
When Ms. Kempker first came here as the principal at Anthony Elementary, she knew what went on in the cafeteria – that most of the students dumped half their lunch in the garbage can. Or, the kids would shove each other and spill milk all over. Recess was also full of scuffles, such as when kids were playing tag, and they got into heated arguments about who was out and who was safe, or somebody got tagged too hard and so the child hit the first child. She says the playground fights are hard on children. As for why, she explains, “When they get angry, they shut down and they don’t want to do anything, and until everything is resolved on an emotional level, they don’t learn. Teachers were spending, oh, 25 to 35 percent of their day, just working out problems between kids.”
To give more time for teaching, Ms. Kempker decided to remove the students from disruptive settings. That’s why now, all students eat lunch in their classrooms, where they learn manners and have to save dessert for last. And they’re eating better, too. Ms. Kempker says that lunch is the most substantial meal most of these kids get each day, so she wanted it to be as nutritious as possible. Studies have shown that vitamins can improve student behavior and thinking power by 30 percent. So all students at Anthony Elementary get daily vitamins with lunch.
Eating with their students each day meant teachers no longer had a half-hour lunch break, so Ms. Kempker gave them 45 minutes of free-time during recess. And to make it all work smoothly, she applied for funding that allowed already-overworked teachers to stop supervising the playgrounds themselves. Instead, the school now employs playground supervisors who specialize in making playground fun and also make a point of offering the children plenty of structured games, such as today, where the supervisor says the kids are doing hurdles. Surrounded by the laughter of the students, she explains, “It’s kind of a little obstacle course with the hurdles and the hoola hoops.”
Just then, one of the students runs up, out of breath, to add her own explanation. “Sometimes after lunch you come out here and have fun. And you play,” she says, squaring her shoulders and rising up on her toes, getting ready to leap back into the game. “But we have fun!!” she adds, before she races away.
It may seem that switching to in-class lunches, and added more playground supervision would be only minor changes. But they’ve had a major impact. Student fitness scores are going up. Behavior problems are down 80 percent, and not just fighting in school, but vandalism in the neighborhood as well. According to the district’s Communications Coordinator, Catey Edwards, local businesses used to brace themselves each afternoon when Anthony students headed home. But she says, “Now, many of the staff members go to the window and just watch the Anthony kids walk by. They see the pride, the respect now that has come from within the school day that is spilling over into the community. And so they go and watch the kids walk home and just find pleasure in their neighbors and feel good about what’s happening.”
There’s also excitement about what’s happening to Anthony’s children academically. Even though the school’s current schedule allows less time for instruction than it did before — after all, there’s an emphasis here on a leisurely lunch and structured recess for every student — student reading and math scores are improving. According to Carol Ayers, the school district official who found funding for the Anthony project, before these changes only 41 percent of Anthony Elementary students passed state math tests. Today? Nearly 96 percent of the kids who’ve been tested are at or above state proficiency levels.
As Ayers repeats these statistics, she smiles and shakes her head. “You look at our math scores, and educators would say that’s impossible to do, to change math scores like that in one year. I mean, you can’t do it.” And yet, here at Anthony Elementary, they did. “It certainly went beyond what the research predicted.”
These days, as Anthony Elementary’s principal walks out to the playground, she gets a chance to watch many happy kids, such as this young girl who skips up to us breaks into a song, that goes, ‘It’s an awesome golly day. Have a great day. Have a great day everyone. Bye! See ya. Bye.”
Smiling at this enthusiasm, Kepmker says she has always known her kids are smart. “We just needed to find a way to get rid of all the other stuff that was getting in the way of their learning, and the other stuff was the behavior.”
I’m Shelley Schlender on the Anthony Elementary playground in Leavenworth Kansas.