Parents and Student Achievement: What's For Lunch?

featured on the Learning First Alliance website, March 31, 2014

The story out of Uintah Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District grabbed more than few hearts recently. Children going through the lunch line whose accounts were low had their lunches taken away.  Some thirty to forty students were impacted. They were given fruit and milk, and the confiscated lunches were thrown away. The district said it had started notifying parents about the accounts earlier in the week, but some parents said they had not been contacted.

It’s difficult and painful to see this happen in a public school in America. We believe, and most of the time we’re right, that public school teachers and officials who teach and care for our children every day are kind and that they use good judgment and common sense when they dispense that kindness. It’s hard to square that with what happened in Utah. The district has since apologized and corrected the problem. Surrounding districts were quick to point out how they deal with this issue – by working with parents individually and by giving parents the ability to pay on their mobile devices. Various stories and actions have followed this story. One was a heartwarming story of a man in Houston who paid the balance on lunch accounts for sixty children.

Another example comes out of the Richardson (Texas) Independent School District from PTA parents at Prestonwood Elementary School.  Maybe because these parents could imagine the embarrassment for their own child in such a situation, they have established the Emergency Lunch Fund, which gives free lunch pass cards to teachers, to be distributed as needed. One of the parents remarked that she, too, had forgotten to pay in the past. That statement is important, because it shows that these parents were not assigning that possibility to only certain parents. They were saying that it actually could happen to any child. Their actions have helped make sure their school put a system in place to deal with low lunch accounts.

Many people wonder how parents can positively impact public education, or even if they really can. Parents like the ones at Prestonwood Elementary show us that they can and do. These are wise parents who understand that if children can’t eat, they can’t learn. They also noted that this issue impacts the entire classroom, because if they do not eat, children do not have the energy needed to learn, and disruptions occur. And they understand that hunger doesn’t lead to student achievement. Because parents were willing to implement this system, educators were able to concentrate on other things. The cost to the PTA is about $100.00 per month!

We’ve all seen parents act inappropriately in their interaction with their children’s schools. When they do, it is important that schools respond in a way that helps those parents do things a better way. But schools that use such parent behavior as an excuse not to encourage parent engagement are losing out. Schools need parents in the equation. What we ask public schools to do cannot be done without parents and other caregivers. It takes parents and schools working together in order to achieve what both want for their students. It takes parents who are willing to engage and schools that are willing to engage them. When parents are engaged beyond their own child, when they become concerned for all children in the system, and when they begin to find solutions to the problems facing public schools, they become a positive partner with schools to ensure academic success and student achievement.

The incident in Utah was an anomaly in our public school system, and I feel sure the school was embarrassed and that they quickly fixed the problem. There are many more positive than negative examples of schools and teachers caring for children with the utmost compassion  – most recently in Atlanta, where teachers cared for students stranded overnight in their schools because of the winter storm. Whenever you see successful schools, there are always caring teachers and engaged parents in the picture. When schools and parents work together, everyone wins – especially the children!

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