CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In one year, Elkins Middle School has reduced office referrals by 20 percent and suspensions by 15 percent. Students are coming to class more, and they're late to class less.
Assistant Principal Angela Wilson says the secret to the Randolph County school's recent success is simple: breakfast.
"Nothing major was changed except for the way we do breakfast," Wilson said. "I absolutely believe it's the cause of the positive results we're seeing."
Elkins Middle is one of about 100 schools in West Virginia that use a new breakfast expansion program, which allows students to eat grab-and-go meals in the classroom instead of only offering meals at the very beginning of the school day in the cafeteria.
"Before this program, we kept seeing an increase in the number of kids who were not participating in class because they were sleepy and hungry, and it made them disruptive," Wilson said. "We have seen a significant decrease in discipline issues across the board since the program started."
A lot more students are eating breakfast, too, now that it's served at a later time and in a different setting. At the start of the last school year, before the program, about 125 students at the 700-plus Elkins school ate breakfast. Now, the school serves nearly 500 students.
The state has made a big push in the past year for more students to eat a healthy breakfast, teaming up with the Dairy Council and applying for grants to fund supplies such as carts to deliver the meals to classrooms, according to Kristy Blower of the state Office of Child Nutrition.
Since 2011, breakfast participation rates in West Virginia schools have increased by 6 percent. That means nearly 20,000 more students are eating breakfast this year than last year.
"We're eliminating any competition against breakfast -- that's what's making the difference," Blower said. "Instead of only offering breakfast early in the morning when students first arrive, they don't have to miss out if their bus is late or if they want to socialize.
"The elementary kids enjoy the family dining experience and benefit from that pattern of focusing on breakfast, and the older kids pay more attention in class because of a new-found source of energy."
The biggest challenge for implementing grab-and-go breakfast or having it delivered to classrooms is teachers accepting the program and administrators supporting it, according to the School Nutrition Association. Blower expects many more schools to implement the program, though, once they realize the benefits of something so inexpensive.
"It's basically a change of thinking. It doesn't take any extra money besides small fees for things like coolers. A lot of schools don't need anything to make this work, except to take the time to change the schedule and work with cooks," she said.
"This is something we've been pushing really hard in the past year, and we will continue to. Some kids don't see that emphasis on a balanced breakfast at home, and this is their only chance to get it. It just works -- it's simple."
West Virginia also is one of only four states to participate in the Community Eligibility Option, which provides all students with free breakfast and lunch if at least 40 percent of the school's students are eligible for free meals.
A majority of the schools that have implemented the alternative breakfast programs have seen a substantial increase in participation rates, and at least one school in each county has implemented the program, Blower said.
Cedar Grove Elementary School in Kanawha County, for example, has doubled its breakfast participation rates since implementing the new option and has subsequently upped its school attendance rates, according to Diane Miller, the county's executive director for food and nutrition.
Miller said her county's focus with the program is to get it into more high schools.
"Our overall numbers haven't jumped significantly because our high schools are pretty low right now. We're making them a priority," she said. "Our elementary schools are seeing wonderful results. We're seeing a lot less trips to the school nurse for tummy aches. This is helping students sustain and concentrate longer."
Wilson said her experience at Elkins Middle might help other counties find a solution to prolonging the pattern of eating breakfast at a young age.
"As a parent, I can speak from my own experiences. My son was one of those kids who didn't want to eat first thing in the morning but was hungry by the time class started. Now, he's in high school and the grab-and-go program is implemented there, and he's used to it because of his experience last year," she said. "This is changing the course of kids' days and will become a permanent part of their life. It's the most important meal of the day."
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