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Good Food and Exercise is a Sure Way to Academic Excellence

  • Shelley Schlender

The push for academic excellence has collided with budget cutbacks, forcing many U.S. schools to reduce lunch and recess supervision in order to put more resources into classrooms. But in a poor neighborhood of Leavenworth, Kansas, one elementary school has bucked the trend. School officials say that since placing more emphasis on good nutrition, lunch and playground supervision, they've seen steady improvements in student academic performance and behavior.

It's lunchtime at Anthony Elementary, a public school in 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. Annie Todd finishes handing out meals to her third graders.

"Why don't we have a moment of silence. Put your napkins in your lap. Moment of silence, Aspen. Okay, you may eat quietly."

As they sit with Miss Todd, the nine year olds recall their former cafeteria days, full of shoving, shouting and stolen dessert.

"One time we had turkey, and then 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."

Down the hall, in the fourth grade class, Esther Devault and her students discuss movies, recess, and the rules during lunch.

Girl1: "We learn our manners in here."

Girl2: "We got to have conversations with our teachers, most of the time."

Girl1: "Yeah."

Devault: "I try to teach them manners, always use your napkin, keep your napkin in your lap, don't talk with your mouth full . . ."

Boy: "..stay in your seat . . . "

Devault: (teasing him) "Stay in your seat, one of your best traits."

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. 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 with them, I think you should really get to know them."

When Ms. Kempker became principal three years ago, 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.

"They thought they were out but they were safe, and so you had this back and forth thing. Or 'somebody tagged me too hard and so I hit 'em.' That was a real common one."

Ms. Kempker says the playground fights were hard on the children.

"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 - 35 percent of their day, just working out problems between kids."

Ms. Kempker decided to remove the students from the disruptive settings. 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. Because lunch is the most substantial meal most of these kids get each day, the principal 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, and they take them, even though some don't like the taste.

Boy1: "They don't taste good at all!"

Boy2: "When you them in your mouth, you feel like you're gonna barf, they're so nasty…"

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. The school received funding for extra playground supervision and also allows for structured games.

"We are doing hurdles. It's kind of a little obstacle course with the hurdles and the hoola hoops. They like it except they're kind of clumsy and keep knocking them over."

Girl: "Sometimes after lunch you come out here and have fun. And you play. But we have fun!! if you're good. Really good."

Those relatively minor changes have had a major impact. Student fitness scores are going up. Behavior problems are down 80 percent 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.

"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 academically. Even though the current schedule allows less time for instruction because of the emphasis on lunch and a structured recess… 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 the students passed state math tests, while today nearly 96 percent of the kids who've been tested are at or above state proficiency levels.

"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. (Laughs) It certainly went beyond what the research predicted."

As she walks out to the playground, Janine Kempker says she's 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."

A Kansas health and nutrition center has made a video about Anthony's transformation, and they're sharing it with other educators interested in helping their students excel.

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