East Baton Rouge’s ‘Breakfast in the Classroom’ program paying off with better attendance, improved discipline, administrators say _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- From left front, Joi Guillory and Daniela Garcia finish breakfast in teacher Leighann King's classroom. For the past year, the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, including Wildwood Elementary, has been experimenting with serving breakfast to students in their homeroom classrooms rather than in the cafeteria. Only a few schools in Baton Rouge are doing it now, but the U.S. Dept. of AgricultureÕs Food and Nutrition Service is pushing hard for school districts to adopt this program. In big cities such as Dallas and Houston the participation rate in eating breakfast has gone from round 40 to 100 percent. Also charter schools in New Orleans have already adopted this. Kids who are fed tend to do better in school, especially in the mornings. They also donÕt need to get to school as early to make sure they make breakfast, since breakfast will be served at the opening bell. Some schools have balked because they donÕt want to have food in every classroom and attract bugs, etc.. But the meals are largely prepackaged so the trash is easily tossed out after eating.

In a sign of how a major disaster can change a community, all students in public schools in Livingston Parish and Central are on track to receive free breakfast and lunch through 2021.

Prior to the record floods in August, these suburban metro Baton Rouge communities were among the more affluent in Louisiana. That’s not so true anymore, at least while flood recovery is ongoing.

“So many people were misinformed about how long it could take to get back after the flood, including me,” said Livingston Parish schools Superintendent Rick Wentzel, “I thought I’d be back in my home by now and I’m still not back home.”

These flood-battered schools are able to provide free meals to all children, regardless of income, thanks to a federal initiative called the Community Eligibility Provision, or CEP.

A provision of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, CEP was piloted in several states and the District of Columbia before it went nationwide for the 2014-15 school year.

Instead of families filling out income eligibility forms to prove they should receive a free meal, CEP allows schools to mine databases for other income-based federal programs to sign children up directly for free meals, a process federal officials call “direct certification.” Children participating in Head Start, living in foster care or who are homeless or migrant also count.

A school or school district is eligible to take advantage of CEP if at least 40 percent of their children qualify for free lunches. If 62.5 percent or more do, then the federal government picks up the entire tab.

A few districts, including East Baton Rouge Parish, the second largest district in the state, joined CEP right away. Since then, it’s grown steadily in Louisiana. Currently, 48 out of 68 traditional public school districts in the state currently participate in CEP, as does almost every charter school, plus a small number of private schools. Districts that initially held off are now in the program, at least for some of their schools. These include large districts such as Caddo and Jefferson Parish, as well as small district like East Feliciana and St. Helena parishes.

Prior to the storm, no schools in Central and only one out of 42 schools in Livingston crossed the 40 percent threshhold.

The flooding, however, made thousands of children homeless. Consequently, the number of directly certified children has doubled in both communities.

“We have over 1,300 students still declared homeless,” said Central Superintendent Michael Faulk.

Livingston Parish has been offering free school meals to all of its more than 25,000 students since the flooding. In October, the school district adopted CEP in October for the remainder of the fiscal year and Wentzel said he intended to apply to participate in the program for four more years.

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Livingston’s numbers of homeless children grew again in the wake of recent tornadoes.

All of Central’s five schools began providing free meals to their nearly 4,700 students right after the flood. After two months, Bellingrath Hills and Central High school returned to traditional mix of free and paid meals after the school’s percentage of direct certified students dipped.

On Monday, the Central School Board voted to add those two schools back to the program by formally accepting CEP. So, starting Monday, April 3, all students in Central will receive meals and will continue to do so through at least April 2021.

“We are locked in for four years,” Faulk said. “We felt that this was in the best interest of our school system.”

Ascension Parish schools and several flooded private Catholic schools also temporarily received free meals during the first two months after the storm. Most schools have returned to normal, but children who are newly homeless still qualify for free school meals. Both have held off so far in adopting CEP as Central and Livingston have.

Jackie Tisdell, a spokeswoman for the school district, said Ascension Parish officials have looked closely into the matter, but for now don’t see adopting CEP as making financial sense.

Melanie Verges, superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said students at a few of the most damaged schools in the diocese are still receiving free meals and will continue doing so through at least October.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers CEP, allows socioeconomically diverse school districts to offer CEP at some schools while excluding others that don’t qualify. West Baton Rouge, for instance, currently offers CEP at eight out of its 10 schools. Neither Ascension Parish or the Catholic diocese have opted for this approach for their eligible schools.

Tisdell said Ascension the decision to stay out of CEP for its eligible schools was made by a previous superintendent.

“We’re going to reassess this in April,” she said.

Leah Smith, supervisor of child nutrition, said she’s “forever grateful” for USDA and the state of Louisiana for letting Livingston join CEP after the flood.

She said the added money has allowed the school district to buy extra carts and coolers and far more children are eating meals, particularly breakfast. She said she’s especially happy with the handful of Livingston schools where students can now “grab and go,” picking up their breakfast as they arrive at school and eating it where they like.

“Breakfast participation increased from 160 students a day in December to over 600 a day in March,” Smith said.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier