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As length of elementary school-lunch periods discussed, snacks touted

Is 20 minutes long enough for elementary students to eat lunch? Some parents don't think so, but school official appear to want to stick to the status quo.

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At its regular meeting Oct. 10, the School Committee discussed for a considerable time a non-agenda item about the length of the school-lunch period in the elementary schools. The discussion was in response to numerous parent complaints that their children spend much of the day hungry; they were quoted both on social media and in The Boston Globe.

Two other agenda items took up much of the remaining time -- preliminary MCAS results and diversity hiring.

No extension of lunch; snacks instead

Although not on the formal agenda, the committee devoted much time to recent elementary school parents’ concerns about students experiencing hunger during school hours because of a 20-minute lunch break. They gave special attention to the issue in the light of the Oct. 9 Boston Globe article, “Arlington Parents:School Lunch Times Too Short.” 

Superintendent Kathleen Bodie agreed that “you do not want kids hungry all day.”  For her, lunch time of 20 minutes seemed to be workable. She said she had observed lunch lines in elementary schools and found “how efficient they are.”  Other changes could be considered, she opined, and she wanted other changes to be consider, because “what time students have lunch is not going to change.” 

Committee member Paul Schlichtman concurred: “Expanding the lunch period is not a good solution,” citing a management issue. “Having tight control over time available in the caf is important,” because “too much time [students] get bored and play around and create a problem.” He suggested the need for the right balance.

Later in the meeting, Chairman Len Kardon posed an additional barrier to lengthening the elementary-school lunch period -- the extra expense of paying staff for the additional time. He noted that the School Department has a tight budget.

Committee members suggested that snacks could be available all day and accessible to students during the school day. Bodie said this solution already exists, because of the generous contributions of Food Link, an Arlington nonprofit that rescues left-over food from various venues and provides it to those in need.

Healthy snacks are delivered regularly to all elementary schools by this organization free of cost.

Kardon suggested the problem may be one of perception, because “parents are not told snacks are available.” While the snacks are there, teachers and students may not realize that they can have these snacks freely. The problem is “it has not been communicated clearly that snacks are allowed.”

He suggested that a letter be sent to teachers and parents informing them of the availability of the snacks and that students be allowed to have these snacks during the school day.

Committee member Jane Morgan volunteered that snacks all day long “can be tricky.” She continued: “I can’t imagine [students] can have snacks all day long” and suggested that the possibilities of having snacks during the school day be communicated carefully. Problems with food allergies also concerned members of the committee.

Bodie agreed that it was “tricky to balance all these things.” She concluded the discussion by promising, “This something we will continue to look at.”

Preliminary MCAS results: Remain above state average

Assistant Superintendent Roderick MacNeal Jr. presented some findings on MCAS results from last spring's testing. He expects to return and present the rest of his report at the Oct. 24 committee meeting.

The results required careful analysis because the introduction a new form of MCAS -- the Next Generation test. The traditional MCAS test, call the Legacy test and given in 2018, was a paper and pencil test in which students results fell into four categories – Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement and Warning (Grades 3-8)/Failing (High School).

The Next Generation test with updated questions, given to some classes in 2019 and on a computer instead of paper, has different scoring and achievement levels: Exceeding Expectations, Meeting Expectations, Partially Meeting Expectations and Not Meeting Expectations. 

To show to the committee how Arlington students fared on these tests, MacNeal created a series of charts comparing the district scores by grade over the last three years. See his full presentation >>

At all grade levels and for all years and subjects, the district scored higher than the state average. Parents can also access the DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) website and review results. 

Committee members had questions and specific recommendations for the second presentation. Member Bill Hayner wondered whether there was a method of doing cohort analysis that would allow a researcher to discover how specific classes and students’ progress over time. MacNeal assured him there was, and he would address this issue in his second presentation.

Member Kirsi Allison-Ampe commented, “We never see what is happening that explains the results.” She continued, “Do you look at why you get the results you did? What change might be made for improvement?” MacNeal said this would be possible by doing an item analysis to see what specific questions were frequently missed and he would present this information at part two of his presentation on the MCAS. 

Diversity hiring faces many obstacles

Robert Spiegel, director of human resources, gave an update on recent efforts to increase diversity hiring in the Arlington school system. He commented at the beginning that Arlington is facing an issue common to many neighboring communities: an increasing diverse student population with little change in diversity among the staff. 

As of Oct. 1, Arlington school system reports 70.37 percent of students who identify as white, while 82.87 percent of all school system employees identify as white. In contrast, only 3.44 percent of the students identify as black or African-American while 3.14 percent of all employees identify as black. However, there is a greater difference when considering the teaching staff (Arlington Education Association) employees of whom 91.25 percent are white. 

Efforts made to recruit a more diverse staff include attending recruiting meetings, holding a diversity breakfast for student and new teachers and working with DESE to find methods of encourage more applicants. Unfortunately, Arlington does not qualify for special state grants for increasing diversity in school staffing. 

Hayner suggested the lower teacher salaries here put Arlington at a disadvantage in attracting a more diverse teaching force, to which Spiegel concurred. He also mentioned the cost of teacher training might discourage minority students to seek other employment, especially since they would need to work on a master’s degree once teaching. 

MacNeal offered another issue, which he researched while working on his doctorate: new African American teachers often prefer to return and teach in African-American communities as a way of giving back.

New administrators 

In other business, the committee welcomed new members of the administration: John Bowler, athletics director; Samantha Hoyo, science curriculum director; Sarah Huber, elementary science coach.

They also voted to approve the high school trip to Puerto Rico (unanimous) and the trip to South Africa (5-2). See document here >>

Bodie announced the next community forum about the new high school, now in design-development phase. It will be held at Town Hall on Oct. 30 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

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