These days, schools are far more than “just” settings in which teaching and learning take place; for many students, schools are also a second family or even their substitute family. More students show up at school — if they show up at all — with serious home-life problems that can affect their academic performance. Any division that fails to acknowledge this fact and address it is a division with its head in the sand, ignoring the reality around it.
One of the fundamental causes of poor academic performance and disciplinary problems among students is simple hunger. A child with an empty, growling belly at 8 a.m. is not going to be a good, well-behaved student in those classes before lunch. When she goes home in the afternoon, if there’s not enough food on the table that night, homework is likely out of the question as headaches and hunger pangs take over. And the cycle just starts again in the morning.
Officials with Lynchburg City Schools have long recognized the link between addressing student hunger, academic performance and behavior. During the administration of former Superintendent Scott Brabrand, the division implemented a free breakfast program for students receiving free or reduced-price lunches, later expanding it to all students at all schools.
Now, under Superintendent Crystal Edwards, LCS is expanding an after-school meal program for students at schools in low-income areas. Last year, all five of the city’s elementary schools and Heritage High School kicked off the Afterschool Meal Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This school year, E.C. Glass High School and Sandusky Middle School joined, raising the number of students who have access to a no-charge meal at the end of the school day to more than 5,000.
It is no secret that Lynchburg has a sizable portion of its population living at or below the poverty line; census data from 2010 and the years since put the figure at approximately 24 percent. It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that a large portion of LCS students live either in poverty or on the margins. Data from the state Department of Education for the 2018-19 school year indicate that 79 percent of the division’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
As we have argued many times in past editorials, poverty is not specific to Lynchburg. It is also a plague on the surrounding counties in Central Virginia, though it is more hidden. Also, it makes sense for people in poverty to move to the city because that’s where the services they need are: public transportation, grocery stores, doctors, jobs that don’t require a personal vehicle and housing.
But it is just a fact of life that school children from a poverty-stricken household simply need more from their school than others. Books, nourishment for the mind, aren’t in as plentiful supply in poor homes, just as food, nourishment for the body. Lack of both cause immediate problems for a child that teachers and schools, by default, must deal with.
When a child begins school reading at a lower level than his peers, the danger of that child falling further and further behind academically is exponentially greater, causing behavioral issues to manifest themselves in the classroom. Add to that scenario the fact that there likely isn’t enough food at home, and the problems only increase.
Each of the elementary schools where the after-school meals available serves about three dozen students who are taking part in YMCA educational programs daily. At Heritage and Glass, participants in the first week of the program numbered between 80 and 90. (Lynchburg and LCS are identified as a “severe need” community because of the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.) The program is open to any student who stays after the final bell of the day and is available from 2:45 to 3:15 p.m. The federal government reimburses LCS $3.41 for each meal served.
By providing a meal in the long gap between lunch time and dinner at home — if there is one — LCS is able to keep more students involved longer in after-school programs, whether it’s sports, clubs or tutoring. And anything that keeps a child in school longer is a plus, in our opinion.
Learning can’t take place if a child is hungry. A classroom isn’t manageable if there are behavior problems because children are hungry. Schools can’t succeed in their primary mission if too many children are hungry. It’s that simple. But programs such as these, fundamentally, are only Band-aids on bigger problems: a lack of higher-paying jobs that allow parents to support their families, a lack of training for those jobs and broken homes. It will take much more work to address those social problems, but this is a start, however small it might be.