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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How can data fix the DC middle school problem?

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The 2012/13 school year was a tumultuous one for my family, because it marked the end of my older child’s time with the most influential community of his young life – his elementary school. My husband and I joined the throngs of parents of 4th graders to explore DC’s middle schools, and the possibility of “greener pastures” outside of out DC Public School’s formal feeder pattern. While I found the process inefficient and nerve-wrecking, more frustrating than the disparate applications and time off work school for open houses, tours and shadow days, was the fact that this hysteria was not so much a personal problem, but a city-wide epidemic.

Parents need information to navigate choice

In spite of frustration, I considered myself lucky to have a strong network of friends, whose older children served as examples of “education success”. I recognized that many other parents may not have this advantage. I felt then (and still do) that if the “education powers that be” were to widely share the data they collect about us, our kids and their schools, then parents would eventually have a better chance at equal access to information and education options.

In October 2012, at the height of my “where will my child go to middle school” angst, I learned that a local chapter of Code for America was forming (Code for DC). Inspired by visualizations I’d come across of Capitol Bikeshare trips (here and here) , I thought understanding the patterns behind where students actually enroll (and at what grades), would be helpful to parents making decisions around schools. Neighbors could get a sense of where children are enrolling, even if they were not necessarily sharing this among themselves.

I showed up at Code for DC’s kick off meeting, in the least productive way possible. I pitched a problem without suggesting a solution and even worse, I had no data. Lucky for me (and for DC families everywhere), well-respected data scientist, Harlan Harris, took up the cause. Of course, my enthusiasm and Harlan’s talent only took us so far. It was not until we connected with the forward-thinking data team at DC’s State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), that this effort got traction. Over the past year, OSSE has been working with parents, advocates and Code for DC to fill the public’s demand for education data. OSEE launched a data rich school report card, and then released the underlying raw data.

openschoolsAccess to this data has enabled the incredibly talented Code for DC education team (Harlan, Tom, Chris, Aaron, Sherry, Elle, Laura, and everyone else who has contributed) to develop a few tools to help parents. One that visualizes where children go to school, based on where they live (and for each school, where children come from). There is also now a school chooser app (try it!), which enables parents to rank qualities important to them in a school and identify schools where neighbors send their children.

These are helpful for individual research, but what about overall systemic change? Finding the right school for your child is terrific, but also heartbreaking if you are relying on a lottery to gain access.

Parents need data to meaningfully engage in policy change

In the meantime, middle schools have received renewed attention due to the Deputy Mayor of Education’s school boundary review process. Parents have been invited to participate in the boundary review and the media has followed it closely.

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Chart courtesy of Bill Horne

Parents have spoken out about the need for quality middle schools and these concerns play out at 5th grade, where students leave the DC Public School system. We’ve learned that very few students feed into their in-boundary schools (and if they are exiting at 5th grade, they are not staying in the formal feeder patterns). But where do they ACTUALLY feed?

A first step towards answering those questions came out of a 1.5 day hackathon held over a weekend for Open Data Day. The education team organized by Code for DC took 8 years of feeder data released by OSSE on a Friday night, and by Sunday morning, built a visualization of how children are flowing among DCPS and DC charter schools. (I told you they were talented!)Actual Feeder Patterns

While the data is limited to one year, and cohorts of less than 5 students have been censored for privacy, it’s the first time we have been able to see the informal feeder patterns for every DCPS and charter school. It answers the questions of for each school, where do kids come from and where do they go?

What’s more, because the data is now released (i.e., open data), ANYONE can analyze it for their school, for their neighborhood, or for the entire system. If you are not a data ‘geek’ yourself, but have ideas around how to analyze the data, join the next Code for DC meetup, or grab the closest data geek in your life and get to it.

Regardless of how you consume this information, be sure to do three things.

  1. Thank OSSE, the DC Public Charter School Board and the DME for the data they have released to date.
  2. Ask for more.
  3. Share your work, so we can all benefit.

Eliot-Hine impressions (yesterday and today)‏ – by Heather Schoell

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Yesterday I attended (along with about 25 others) Eliot-Hine’s open house. We listened to adults speak for a bit, toured the 6th grade floor, and sat in on a math class. Then a panel of 6th graders, one from each feeder school, along with the principal and the math teacher, took questions. Most of our questions were about daily life — what recess is like, how much homework they have, if they feel challenged, if they feel safe — that sort of thing.

I told Olivia about it, and she wanted to check it out for herself. We went at 8:30 this morning — I wanted to see how it functioned when students came in. Aside from my having to get wanded by security, I had no complaints. The kids came in quietly and went to their homerooms. We saw several kids that we knew from Maury. No one was yelling or acting up, but for one kid who was taunting a security guard at the end of the hall, making like he was going to leave from a side door.

We sat in on the English class. Like the last time I popped in unannounced, the students were seated and quiet, participating and engaged in the lesson. Olivia said it was like her class at Maury with Mrs. Cooper. We stayed for 45 minutes (she had to get back in time for her reading intervention group) and she got her first tardy slip of her elementary career. 
Eric asked me if it would be disastrous for Olivia to attend, and it would absolutely not be a disaster. That it will be the right fit for Olivia’s academic levels, I need more convincing, but it is worth looking at. 
If my girl Rhee was still here, she’d rip out those prison doors and magnetometer, that is for sure. We just got the bike racks installed, the pad is poured for the lighted sign, and the teachers are getting their IB training, so it’s moving in the right direction.