What’s for Lunch, CHM@L?

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DCPS’ Food and Nutrition Services have put out a call for parent feedback on school meals, which will serve as input into an upcoming RFP for a new (or not) vendor.

CHM@L students heard the call and with a little help from parents, provided an opportunity for kids themselves (as well as adults) to weigh in.

On Halloween eve, they put up a banner in the lobby, asking questions like: What is your favorite food currently served at school? What food or dish do you wish was served? What should be banned? What are your favorite veggies? Is your lunch peaceful?


The banner was left up for a week. Here’s what the community said…

Pizza, followed by chicken nuggets are the favorite foods served today.

Sushi (like by a landslide), ice-cream and popcorn should find their way into menus.

Kids like veggies and have opinions about how to prepare them! The favorites are kale chips and broccoli (steamed might be the winner there).

What should be banned? Fish! (Mexican fish seemed specifically offensive), PIZZA (huh?) and beans! Broccoli, too, made it on to this ‘naughty’ list…

Also interesting, what kids consider to be the healthiest food currently served at school… Carrots, “cold broccoli” and beans seem sensible, but pizza? I guess it must really be a veggie… (I bet CHM@L’s health and wellness club has recipes for a healthy version!)

Finally, there was telling feedback about the lunch experience beyond food. Most of it pointed to too loud and too short, but somehow, it’s hard to overlook the words disorganized and unorganized.

And there you have it! Statistically sound? Not quite, but I think it’s safe to say that there are plenty of opinions out there about school lunch. I spent about 30 mins (over the course of 2-3 drop off/pick ups) observing kids and parents weighing in. Quite often, parents mentioned that they did not respond to the DCPS survey because their children did not participate in school meals services.

I suggested they respond anyway, as they know what their children like to eat and this information is useful when vendors are planning meals.

While many of us have the option to participate, there are also many children who don’t. In some cases, all their meals come from school. Those meals should be as healthy and tasty as the meals parents pack.

Thanks to the parents, educators, policymakers, and students who work to ensure school meals are the best possible, and to everyone (especially the kids!) who planned and participated in this small ‘offline’ survey. The original banner will be sent to DCPS’ Food and Nutrition Services team, as well as the digitized results.

(Be sure to check out the bloopers – there are some jokers out there… especially those who suggested ‘dry farts’ should be banned from school lunch. Better out than in, I say!)

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Where do DC homeless students go to school? These tween hackers can show you!

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The Relisha Rudd story has cast a light on the heartbreaking state of homeless children in DC. Payne Elementary, Relisha’s school (and my own inboundary school) reportedly serves 55 (out of 260) homeless students. How can we, as a community help? A group of tween civic hackers want to start by finding where homeless students go to school. 

A team of students from Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan EC (DCPS) and BASIS DC (PCS) were invited to share their DC Food Deserts project at the Tech Embassy as part of DC’s inaugural Funk Parade. While preparing for the Tech Embassy, they decided they wanted to address current issues in DC schools. Saddened by Relisha Rudd’s disappearance, they were surprised learn how many students in Relisha’s school are homeless. Wondering whether there were homeless students in all DC schools, they reached out to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to request data about number of DC students enrolled in schools. 

OSSE shared the data (along with encouraging words e from State Superintendent himself, Jesus Aguirre, saying, “Thanks for focusing on such an important issue.  We can’t wait to see what you build!”), and the students were able to create a map that shows homeless student enrollment by school (for DCPS and PCS).


View Larger Map

How’d They Learn to Map?

The students (calling themselves “Mini Hacker Civics”) are alumni of the DC Teachers and Geography Students in DC (TAGS DC), a program, run by the DC Geographic Alliance (of National Geographic Society) and DC’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO). Students work with experts and mentors to use geographic information systems and local data to bring light to social causes. As part of the program, students presented their findings and recommendations to their communities and local officials.



Technology and Open Data are for Everyone

While the mapping effort is not a solution to homelessness or food deserts, it’s important to recognize that you can’t begin to solve a problem if you don’t know it’s there. Technology enables us to present the data in ways we can better analyze it, and government’s commitment to making data available enables parents, students, (all of us) to advocate, support, participate and innovate around causes that are important to us.


“The Tech Embassy, a pop-up free space for locals to explore and play with tech innovations made by DC residents for DC residents” created a space (hosted by Affinity Lab) for participants to engage with local projects by Code for DC, DC Public Libraries, Open Technology Institute and others. The event demonstrated that data and technology can be available and useful to all of us. Whether and how we choose to participate is up to us.

**Full Disclosure – my son is among the “Mini Hacker Civics

The DME Boundary review should happen WITH us, not TO us

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Parent (and citizen) engagement efforts around large changes to policy or structure seem to follow a predictable formula. Big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and big announcements at the end (with the media reporting on the public or leaked bits here and there). I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I’m always happy to share my opinion and experiences, but are these inputs helpful without context? Doesn’t it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out, before asking their opinion?

It’s exciting to see agencies like Washington, DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the DC Public Charter School Board (DCPCSB), and most recently, the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME) take steps towards releasing data. Not for the sake of transparency, but to get work done. The most visible recent example is the DME’s Boundary review process. It started with the usual, formulaic elements of an Advisory Committee, surveys, working groups and promise of engagement, but has of late, started to infuse the conversation with the broader education community with information and data.

This is important, because it enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to this process in a way that is more meaningful than simply offering personal opinions. We can now react to policy questions based on how they are actually playing out at the Ward and city level (not just our own or our neighbor’s experiences). We can consider our positions and understanding of impact to all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The community information packets distributed at the April 5 working group contain a TON of rich information, demographic projections, scenarios at the school, cluster of schools, and ward levels. It’s clear that the DME’s team and Advisory Committee are carefully weighing not just today’s situations, but how these will look based on what our city will look like in 2017 (based on projected population of 0-3 and 4-11 year olds). Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic GGDCEDU reader weighed in on the DME’s policy examples by citing the data.

Of course, this does not mean much for folks who are not used to working with data. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. Because the DME released the proposed boundary changes, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps with these new boundaries.

feederThe DME also released feeder pattern analysis for DCPS elementary, middle and high schools. However, because OSSE released this data in February, Code for DC civic hacker, Chris Given, was able to create a dynamic view of this data for ALL DCPS and PCS schools. This creates another opportunity for parents and education stakeholders to see how today’s policies are playing out, without needing extensive data skills.

All these exciting developments around data come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants of the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn’t help but notice that the crowd was full of the ‘usual suspects.’ I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and to some degree, data savvy (or connected with data savvy networks). This begs the question of whether access to additional data will help families who are offline and/or unable to attend the ‘live’ boundary discussions? In my opinion, the risk of their interests not being represented in the discussion becomes even greater.

I don’t have any ready-made solutions to address this risk, but imagine that if DCPS, OSSE, DCPCS, DME, parent-driven community networks and perhaps DC Public Libraries and DC Parks and Recreation, worked together, we could reach many, if not all families. The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us.

How will you help?