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How Principals Use the Lunch Hour to Target Student Apathy

Principals snack. They graze. They munch. Sometimes, they pulverize their lunch into a smoothie and carry it around school. Most school leaders just don’t have the time to sit down to lunch.

In response to a query on one of Education Week’s social media pages, school leaders said they often spent the school’s lunch hour with students.

“We have three student lunch waves of 400 students each and I want to be visible and present in as many of these as possible. I am seldom able to take time for myself. Lunch is sometimes eaten on the drive home!!”

—Jarred C.

“There is a small window that is usually fairly quiet before I head to lunch duty when I may be able to eat lunch or warm up my lunch. Some days I take advantage of that opportunity. Otherwise, it is usually late in the afternoon when I realize I haven’t eaten and why I am so grumpy.”

—Shawn V.

“I try to carve out time to eat lunch in the cafeteria at least 3-4 times a week. This gives me an opportunity to interact with students, engage in what’s going on in their world, and ‘break bread’ with many of our teachers and other administrators who are supervising students.”

—Courtney W.

Now, many principals are leaning into that strategy, thinking about how the school lunch hour could be used better, especially when there’s an opportunity to engage students with their school community, or help them catch up academically.

Scott Zgraggen, the assistant principal at Springfield Township High School in Montgomery County, Pa., has run a “lunch and learn” program over the last three years in his school. During a combined lunch hour for the whole school, all 770 students are either eating together, catching up on a missed quiz, getting homework help, or just hanging out with teachers.

“When our kids came back after the pandemic, we realized they’d lost socialization skills, and the wherewithal for work. That’s when we blew up our old schedule of separate lunches, and created a new, combined hour for lunch,” he said. .

Like Zgraggen, assistant principal Lynn Jennissen at the St. Michael-Albertville Public School in Albertville, Minn., believes that fun school lunches can help students connect with each other, and the school community.

“We don’t allow cellphones in our school during the school day. For 33 minutes [during lunch], students are forced to look at each other. They have time to interact without distractions or feeling rushed. It’s great to see them actually talk!” he said.

Cafes, conversations, and rewards

Jennissen’s school has tried to capitalize on every part of the lunch experience. When students are standing in line to get their lunch, a line monitor greets every student by name. It’s an opportunity to check-in with students outside the classroom, Jennissen said.

School leaders have also tried to convert lunchrooms into celebratory spaces.

At the Albertville school, for instance, students who’ve earned character badges for good behavior that week are recognized and rewarded during lunch. They, and seven of their friends, get to sit in a special area nicknamed the “Knights’ Honor Lounge,” that’s set up with games. The winner’s name is drawn from a lottery of badge-earners, who then also get to skip ahead in the lunch line.

All of this happens in front of their peers, said Jennissen, because it incentivizes good behavior.

Three years ago, local businesses used to donate gift cards to the winners for a free ice cream or meal. But that practice had to stop, said Jennissen, when the state legislature tightened the screws on school audits.

“We had to start figuring out the monetary value of these cards. If the school hadn’t purchased the gift cards, we couldn’t distribute them anymore. It’s been a downer for our students,” he said.

Rewards are part of Jeffrey Horstman’s lunchroom strategy, too, in which students who’ve earned character badges are publicly recognized. Horstman is an assistant principal at the Mililani Middle School in Hawaii, which serves a large population of Asian students. School-level data showed leaders that African American, Micronesian, and white students didn’t feel connected as to the school as their Asian peers.

Mililani is an army base, which gave school leaders an idea.

“We brought in military bands to host concerts during lunch. Our minority students could see people like themselves, since some of them also belong to military families,” Horstman said.

The concerts engage students, and many kids also line up to get the bands’ autographs later. The school leadership is now toying with the idea of bringing in more local organizations to do demonstrations or drills during lunch.

“We want to get the 599th Transportation Brigade [an Army unit that moves equipment, troops, and supplies across the world], to do push-up challenges,” Horstman said. “That’s another benefit of this program—kids can feel connected to their local communities, too.”

Controlled chaos

Leveraging lunch, though, is labor-intensive.

Both Horstman and Jennissen said their whole leadership team—usually, a principal, two assistant principals, and a few paraprofessionals—have to man the lunchroom, the amphitheaters, or outside spaces where students eat lunch. The work intensifies if there’s an activity or prize distribution held in the same hour as lunch.

Zgraggen said he runs a “tight ship” during the lunch hour he supervises. Because all 770 students have a lunch break at the same time, a school leader has to supervise each area where students are—the cafeteria, the gym, and the corridors. To make the common lunch work, the school had to convert the lobby and smaller alcoves so students could sit and work there.

Teachers, too, must organize their lunch hour in specific ways. “Teachers in the same subject area eat lunch together for the first 30 minutes, and then have office hours for the next 30, where they can help students with their specific academic needs,” said Zgraggen.

At the start, students had to be nudged to show up for extra work during the lunch hour. That’s where school leaders manning these different spaces come in—they send students to their assigned rooms to study, make up missed attendance, or take a missed quiz.

It isn’t all serious, though—students also use the time to work on group projects with their teachers, like making a film or doing a physics experiment.

It’s not a perfect system yet, Zgraggen said, because students can leave the building during lunch or not attend their advised study period. While senior students were able to adapt to the lunch and learn instructions quickly, those new to high school had some trouble adjusting to the mixed scheduling.

And the school has made some adjustments to suit student preferences.

“I recently had to tell a student that he couldn’t DoorDash his food every day, because delivery people aren’t vetted by the school,” he said. “Now his grandmother drops off his lunch everyday.”

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