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School breakfast as a “force multiplier” for educational achievement

The growing movement to boost educational achievement via breakfast for school children is an example of how bipartisan pragmatism can triumph over politics to serve the public interest.  It may also be a model for other early investments in children that are effective in the short-term and save money in the long run.

Recently at 52nd Street Elementary School in L.A.  Principal Jimenez told us that after switching to breakfast-in-the-classroom, the number of students with perfect attendance increased from 250 to 439.  What I didn’t realize until further research was that attendance in K and 1st grade is a predictor of third grade reading levels. Grade level reading is a predictor of high school graduation.  Suddenly a stunning return on investment becomes visible on what once seemed a far and bleak horizon. 

Every 26 seconds a student drops out of school according to America’s Promise. The national high school graduation rate is 78.2 percent. Nearly one in five students does not graduate with their peers.  One in four African American and nearly one in five Hispanic students attend high schools where graduating is not the norm.  If we reach a 90% graduation rate by 2020, additional graduates will increase GDP by $6.6 billion annually.

Deloitte’s No Kid Hungry Social Impact Analysis affirms that 52nd Street Elementary School fits into a broader pattern linking breakfast with academic achievement. Governor O’Malley’s initiative – Maryland Meals for Achievement – is aptly named.

Yet for generations breakfast participation rates were stuck near 40%  because of difficulties getting kids to school early, and the stigma attached.. Though still a long way to go, national participation recently topped 50% for the first time. That’s partly because over the past five years something fascinating happened. Instead of giving up, or giving in to the traditional reflex of trying to outspend the problem, advocates began to out-think it.  Through innovation, local solutions, and public-private partnerships they developed an array of alternatives to breakfast in the cafeteria. Those that work best are now being scaled, especially Breakfast After the Bell which includes in-classroom as well as “grab-and-go” options.   This relatively simple, low-tech change yields enormous dividends.

If that were all the value we created it would be more than enough. But like a “gift with purchase” we not only get the results for children that we bought and paid for, but also learn valuable lessons about creating transformational social change.  Here are four:

n   Scaling What Works:  NKH has focused on existing but under-utilized programs with a track record of effectiveness and bipartisan support.  Scaling strategies such as reducing barriers, raising awareness, community organizing, and building political will, are challenging but more politically palatable than creating new programs from scratch. As Newark Mayor and New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker told the New York Times just last week: “The issue is not finding the answers.  It’s just growing them to scale.”  

n  Relying on local innovation and solutions:  ranging from financial incentives, competition, the Governor’s bully pulpit which can be advanced via dissemination of best practices.

n  “Force multipliers” which is what the military means by dramatically increasing the effectiveness of a given action.  As new research data enables us to connect the dots, we learn that breakfast is not only helping children grow and be healthy, but impacting attendance and potentially grade level reading and graduation rates.  This force multiplier broadens our base of support, creates allies and partners beyond the usual suspects, and improves prospects of success.

n  Accountability:  by setting specific, measurable goals, that have local and national buy-in, tracking and communicating results, and ensuring transparency, we differentiate ourselves and achieve a competitive advantage in a crowded marketplace.

School breakfast is not a panacea to solve all of our problems. But it is a necessary foundation upon which to build.  As Governor Martin O’Malley told me during a recent visit to his office in Annapolis: “Small things done well make large things achievable.”  If we do this well there may be no limits to what we can achieve.

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