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Calvert high school turns them loose at lunch

Susan Notes:

What a civilized approach to lunch scheduling. Imagine treating young adults like people who, given a break in their stressful day might like to do a variety of things during that free time. Imagine treating them like people who don't need to be corralled in the cafeteria, treating them like people who can make choices.

Kudos to educators who can live with messiness.

Now what would happen if elementary schools dared to try the same thing?

By Jenna Johnson

It's lunchtime at Patuxent High School in Southern Maryland, but it looks and sounds more like recess.

Students lounge in hallways and classrooms with sack lunches and trays of food. They play Frisbee, get dating advice from teachers, hold club meetings, cram for afternoon quizzes, play video games or catch up on sleep.

Two years ago, Patuxent Principal Nancy Highsmith released students from the confines of the cafeteria and replaced the multiple 30-minute lunch periods with one hour-long, schoolwide lunch. With some creative scheduling class time has remained the same, she said, and the middle-of-the-day burst of freedom has increased club participation, taught time management skills and given stressed-out students time to chill.

But there's an ulterior motive: raising test scores, grades and graduation rates.

Previously, students needing extra help had to arrive early in the morning or stay after school. Often, that meant they didn't get the help they needed, Highsmith said.

Now teachers use the first or second half of the hour-long lunch break to stage interventions. They teach, tutor and mentor students who receive low scores on national or state standardized tests, fail classes required for graduation or would simply benefit from individual attention.

"There are no excuses now. They can't say they didn't have time," Highsmith said.

It's too early to say whether the extra time will manifest itself in higher test scores and achievement, Highsmith said. But based on anecdotal evidence, she said it's a "huge success." This fall, Calvert County extended the pilot program to its three other high schools.

The idea came from James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, where Principal Carole Goodman has become known as the "Lunch Lady" for an article she wrote for an education magazine in 2006 about her school's 50-minute lunch period. For more than eight years, Blake students have been allowed to eat anywhere, meet with clubs, catch up on work, retake tests and even skateboard in the parking lot.

"I always warn freshmen parents: It looks like complete chaos to someone who doesn't know better," said Goodman, who has been the principal at Blake since in opened in 1998. "It's loud. It's noisy. It's messy. But that's what teenagers are."
Less tension, fewer fights

Goodman sees fewer lunchroom fights now, she said, because students are not forced to stay in the tension-filled lunchroom. Some students would rather hang out with a teacher they trust than face the social "craziness of the cafeteria," she said. "You can learn a tremendous amount at lunchtime. You learn the culture of your school," she said.

About half of Montgomery high schools have a similar lunch setup, Goodman said.

In Fairfax County, Marshall High School switched to an hour-long lunch about seven years ago to cut down on the number of students and teachers staying after school. "Kids are tired at the end of the day. Teachers are tired at the end of the day," Principal Jay Pearson said. "They want to go home."

Henry E. Lackey High School in Charles County began an hour-long lunch this fall to cut down on the time teachers and vice principals spent supervising the lunchroom.

"We started at about 10:10 and went until 1:30. It drove me crazy. We spent over a third of our day -- almost half our day -- supervising lunch," said Principal James Short, who used to work in Montgomery County.
Retaking a class

During lunch at Patuxent High last week, senior Tameka Nolan and government teacher Jack Norton discussed questions on worksheets: What is urban sprawl? Should this fantasy town build a shopping mall?

Three days a week, the two meet so Nolan can retake a government class that is required for graduation. Lunch is the only time Nolan, 17, can schedule the session. When school lets out, she has to care for her 2-year-old son, Machi.

"I just need to graduate," she said, an iPod bud in one ear. Having a working lunch several days a week "is not taking away from anything. I can do it."
'We get more freedom'

Just across the hall, basketballs bounced, flew and swished as members of the varsity basketball team and their friends shot free throws. A group of girls sat on the bleachers and watched, eating chicken sandwiches and laughing. Other players sat and talked with a teacher.

The old lunch system "was just like class: you were stuck," said Florencio "Cito" Alhambra, 18. "We get more freedom. We get to do more stuff."

Of course, some students do not seek the help they need, Highsmith said. There are some who never attend club meetings, who don't see the hour as an opportunity to flex their time-management skills, who sneak into off-limits hallways to make out, who are part of a clique of "chronic walkers" and circle the hallways with their friends.

"Sometimes they need a break," Highsmith said. "They have some downtime. They can decompress."

Teachers take turns supervising the hallways, and vice principals patrol with walkie-talkies, looking for troublemakers, lip-lockers, fighters, pranksters or other potential problems.

Just after 12:30 the warning bell rang. Students wandered toward their lockers and then wandered toward their fifth-period classes.

"Three more minutes!" Highsmith shouted at a group sauntering a little too slowly. "iPod! iPod! iPod!" she said to a boy who still has the buds -- banned outside lunch -- in his ears.

There was another bell. Classroom doors shut. Janitors started their sweep of the halls.

"It's done," Highsmith said with a sigh in a quiet hallway. "And now we're back to normal."

— Jenna Johnson
Washington Post



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