High Schools Embrace School Breakfast and Build Relationships
Meet Austin Independent School District (Texas)
Located in Travis County, Texas, the Austin Independent School District (Austin ISD) is big: 130 schools and more than 80,000 students. With 1 in 4 students in the county coming from a food-insecure household, the district recognized the importance of providing as many food access points as possible, and doing so across grade levels.
The district worked with Partners for BIC to expand its school breakfast program by implementing breakfast after the bell programs at 39 sites. This included four high schools where breakfast participation is often lower compared to younger grades. And for Austin ISD, that uneven participation ran counter to its belief that “all means all.” The district set out to feed all students each and every school day. Joining Austin in that effort was Education Austin, an affiliate of the Texas State Teachers Association.
HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS AT AUSTIN ISD
For many high school students, school mornings come with family responsibilities. These include helping younger family members get ready and getting them to school before arriving at school themselves. Busy mornings mean older students may not have time to eat breakfast at home. In some food-insecure households, older students may pass on eating at home to make sure that their younger siblings are able to do so. Even if they are able to get to school on time to receive breakfast in the cafeteria before the bell, many students opt out due to stigma associated with the program.
Austin ISD knew that expanding breakfast after the bell models in high schools could help address these challenges. Breakfast after the bell also had the added bonus of showing older students that they are cared for and supported by their school. (Austin ISD also funded expansion to elementary schools with a grant from the Partners for BIC; however, this case study focuses on the high school experience.)
Knowing that each school in the district was unique, Austin ISD created a specific breakfast after the bell plan for each school. Anneliese Tanner, the executive director of food service, describes how the district works school by school:
“We start by sitting down with the principal and talking about breakfast in the classroom and the benefits for the students and to iron out those logistics. Then we attend a staff meeting, and we talk about hunger with the teachers so they really understand the context for the program. Then we do all the back-of-house planning — ordering supplies and training our staff. And then we come back a week before the program is going to roll out and train the teachers so that they get to see what the morning is going to look like once we start Breakfast in the Classroom. And then it’s launch day.”
Of course, not everyone jumps on board with both feet. Tanner describes one food service manager who was worried about the amount of extra work operatingbreakfast after the bell models would bring but who was “dedicated to her students beyond measure.” After the program had been up and running for several weeks, she called and told Tanner that the program was one of the best things she had ever done in her career.
Once the plan was developed and the equipment purchased, food service staff practiced the process so there would be no surprises. Christina Steele-Hantgin, the interim principal at Travis Early College High School, recalls how the staff in her school proceeded: “They actually did a couple of mock runs, where they went out, put food in the coolers to see how long that took, and then moved them out to the classrooms to see also what the time frame was for that.” That process was then amended once the school’s master schedule was finalized so that staff knew exactly which classrooms were to receive breakfast and how many breakfasts.
Knowing that mornings can be hard for teenagers, even those without responsibilities at home, Steele-Hantgin was in support of a breakfast after the bell program in her school. She talks about what things were like before implementing breakfast after the bell:
“One of two things would happen. If the student wasn’t great at advocating for themselves, they would come in and see the cafeteria closed, and a rough morning became an even worse morning as they headed to their first period class without anything to eat, and then lunch is three hours away. So how they were paying attention in the first two periods, I’m sure it was very difficult, if possible at all. The other thing, if a student was good at advocating for themselves, they could always find one of us, and we would walk them in and help them get breakfast, but again it was one more thing to add to a morning that had probably not been the easiest morning to begin with for them. Seeing that and thinking about students going thorugh the day without food, at least through the morning, even three hours, was heartbreaking for me … They just can’t pay attention to algebra when they’re hungry. So it was necessary for us to make sure that food was readily available to our students in the morning.”
“They just can’t pay attention to algebra when they’re hungry. So it was necessary for us to make sure that food was readily available to our students in the morning.”
BREAKFAST IS SERVED
Austin ISD has worked hard to use its breakfast after the bell program to help build community through relationships. There are relationships between staff and students, and relationships between students. At the heart of that work is the idea that students should know they are cared for.
One way Austin ISD has done that is by implementing breakfast in the classroom, providing direct-to-classroom service in high schools. Tanner explains, “In a lot of school districts, the high school breakfast in the classroom looks different than the elementary schools, [but] we deliver bags, coolers, and fruit bags in the high school just like we do in the elementary. That room-style service, that sort of elevated customer service where breakfast is coming to the kids and to the teachers, it helps create community.”
Steele-Hantgin adds that the district explained to the community that “this was a very communal thing to be eating in the classroom.” She describes it as “building relationshps, centered around food in the morning.”
As in other schools, teachers in Austin ISD had questions and concerns. Norah Silard, a teacher and coach, describes her hesitancy: “I was really concerned about the mess … I wasn’t sure if it would slow down our teaching.” But after the program started, she saw rapid changes. “I also saw immediate higher attendance,” she says. “I rarely ever have a kid miss a morning class.” Silard also sees benefits that come from her students in terms of creating and participating in a community. She says, “It [breakfast after the bell] creates a community that eats together and that spends time together outside of just doing school.”
One element of this community building has been students being able to learn more about each other. In her class, Silard created a climate in which students could ask each other questions and learn about each other’s cultures and religions. Jamya Vaughn, another high school teacher, talks about how the breakfast program offered a chance for her to help students solve problems. She says, “I had a couple of students last year that were really struggling outside of my classroom to get along. I had heard that there were some issues going on in other places, but I started sitting with them in the morning when class would start, and we would all be eating breakfast and we just started having dialogue.” For students, it is very simple. “When we are eating breakfast,” says one student, “we talk about so many things.”
As a large district, Austin ISD has been able to offer variety in its breakfast after the bell program. This has included multiple options each day, with at least one plant-based option. This choice is available at all grade levels. Students are aware of which choices contain foods, such as pork, that some may not be able to eat. As Steele-Hantgin puts it, these are meals that “meet their dietary needs as well as their cultural needs.”
No program rolls out without challenges, but expanding breakfast after the bell into high schools in Austin ISD may have had fewer than others. Because the district had been offering breakfast after the bell in a large number of schools already, there were systems in place and educators who were familiar with the program. When a challenge was faced, the staff met and talked through how to make the program work for them.
Teacher concerns about mess were quickly abated. As Silard says, her students know “you eat, you sweep.” Students also recognized that mess could be a problem, but as one student observed, breakfast after the bell with its choices of food meant that students were not bringing in as much food from outside the school and that the classroom was set up for proper disposal of food.
Austin ISD has five high schools that participate in BIC, and while high school particiaption in breakfast is generally lower than that in the younger grades, regardless of the service method, there have been some significant successes. Travis High School saw its breakfast participation rate increase from 26 percent to 68 percent, while International High School increased breakfast participation from 24 percent to 58 percent.
But in addition to the increases in participation, the biggest impact of the program may be found in the attitudes of students and the building of relationships among students and between students and staff. As Marco, a high school student, shares, “[breakfast in the classroom] gets me more into my work and less into thinking I need something to eat.” Another student, whose sister also attends a school with breakfast after the bell, describes why her parents like the program: “Sometimes she doesn’t make it on time. Now she has breakfast in the classroom.”
Tanner captures the change that the program has brought about in a story from one of the first high schools to implement the program. “There was a football game going really late, “ she says, “and they’re tied in the end, and it was about 11:00 p.m., and the boys were ranting about how it was going to be so rough the next day at school. And one of them said ‘We have breakfast in the classroom. We don’t have to get to school early,’ and they got so excited that the whole football team was there chanting, ‘BIC, BIC.’”
Vaughn says, “I see the breakfast after the bell program as … almost like a gateway to how we can do education differently in the sense of social-emotional support and fulfilling basic needs.”
For Austin ISD, the breakfast after the bell program is part of a larger effort to support all students. By offering the students a better start to the day, breakfast after the bell helps to lay the groundwork for student success.
WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AUSTIN ISD TO OTHER DISTRICTS CONSIDERING BREAKFAST AFTER THE BELL
“Every district should absolutely roll out breakfast in the classroom … Involving community and your stakeholders makes it more rewarding for everyone and helps the program be successful because everybody then has a piece of the responsibility for its success.”Director of Food Service
“Don’t be afraid of the mess. These kids have to learn to be clean, especially in high school, so use it as an opportunity, embrace it, and be grateful that these kids are getting food.”High School Teacher
“Be open-minded about it … It’s a super powerful game-changer for our students, and it will be for the teachers and everybody involved as well if they embrace it.”High School Teacher
“Make sure that you’re communicating with all the stakeholders, and make sure that you really identify who they are … They’re the teachers, the students, your community, the cafeteria, even the front office staff [who have] to take part in getting BIC to work on our campus.”
ABOUT PARTNERS FOR BREAKFAST IN THE CLASSROOM
The Partners for Breakfast in the Classroom (Partners for BIC) is a consortium of national education and nutrition organizations, including the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF), the NEA Foundation, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) Foundation. With the generous support of the Walmart Foundation, Partners for BIC has provided technical assistance and over $11 million in funding to support the implementation of breakfast after the bell models in more than 500 schools in 70 districts, leading to over 100,000 additional children eating a healthy school breakfast since 2010.