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Jackson school officials check out Halls plan
Five-year-old Edder Montecino, a kindergartner at Sugar Hill Elementary School, pauses in between bites of his french toast as part of the "Breakfast in the Classroom" program Wednesday. The program aids in decreasing confusion in the hallway and lends itself to more instructional time during the school day. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Students in Laurie Whitener’s kindergarten class at Sugar Hill Elementary School start arriving at 7:15 a.m. As they trickle in, they put their bookbags away and grab breakfast items from the front of the room.

On Wednesday morning, French toast, applesauce and milk were packaged neatly for Whitener’s 16 students to eat while beginning their morning work.

This is the scene in most classrooms at Sugar Hill Elementary, which serves about 700 students each morning and is one of nine schools in Hall County that allow students to eat
breakfast in class.

A mix of Jackson County principals, food service managers and other school system employees visited Sugar Hill Elementary on Wednesday morning to get a firsthand look at how the school handles breakfast in the classroom. The system is planning to start its own program.

Wanda Oliver, Jackson County’s food service director, said she’s also looked at a "Grab ‘N’ Go" system, a hybrid between traditional breakfast in the cafeteria and breakfast in the classroom.

"‘Grab ‘N’ Go is where the students pick up the breakfast components and pay in the cafeteria and take it to their homeroom," she said.

The system will begin at East Jackson Middle School starting Monday and continue through the remainder of the school year, giving the system a chance to see how well it works.

"I look at it from the standpoint of we’re reaching out to the students who we’re not feeding," Oliver said about the two breakfast frameworks.

Breakfast in the classroom process actually begins the previous afternoon when teachers ask students to decide whether they will be eating the next morning. Cookie Palmer, director of school nutrition for Hall County schools, said the food services staff at each school begins preparing breakfasts once teachers send in their rosters.

Large plastic bins labeled with the teacher’s name, grade level and room number are filled with insulated containers to keep cold and hot items at the proper temperature.

The next morning, staff prepares the food, fills each bin with enough for each student and wheels them on large dollies to each grade level before students arrive.

"We send spoons. We send whatever they need," Palmer said.

Breakfast items vary daily, though Palmer said the school follows federal nutrition regulations to determine what can be served. Some foods are prepackaged and heated in the morning; twice a week, the staff makes biscuits for the main entree.

"It’s a little hectic for the kitchen staff on those days, but my folks are willing to do that for our kids," Palmer said.

Teachers decide whether to distribute the breakfast items themselves or let students get their own from the bins. In Whitener’s classroom, she and her paraprofessional passed out breakfast the first few weeks of school, but let students pick up the food themselves once they had established a morning routine.

"They know exactly what to do," she said. "It teaches them independence."

Whitener said the main drawback is spills, which don’t occur often. When one of her students spilled his milk on the floor Wednesday, it was the first spill of the school year.

Though it took a few years for her to get used to the breakfast routine, Whitener believes it gives students a chance to start learning before school officially starts at 7:50 a.m.

"It’s definitely helped my class because it’s added instructional time," she said. "By the time 7:50 comes ... we’re ready to hit the ground rolling."

Palmer agreed, noting that the school originally looked at breakfast in the classroom as a way to save space in the cafeteria but saw other benefits once it was implemented.

"There’s more instructional time, less confusion in the hallways and it solved the problem of overcrowding in the cafeteria," Palmer said.

The number of students taking part in the program in Hall County schools has been mixed.

Martin Elementary in Flowery Branch was the first school to try it. Its breakfast participation grew from 28.7 percent the year prior to 59.9 percent in the new program’s first year, according to Palmer.

Similarly, Sugar Hill Elementary saw its breakfast participation increase from 68 percent to 88.4 percent once breakfast was served in the classroom starting in the 2005-06 school year.

At Jones and Flowery Branch elementaries, breakfast participation grew marginally when it moved to the classroom. Flowery Branch Elementary saw a 2.3 percent increase; Jones Elementary rose 4.7 percent.

Pam Johns, principal at South Jackson Elementary School, said breakfast in the classroom may help with discipline in addition to learning.

"It might cut down on discipline problems," she said. "They’re (the students) not just in a big group in the cafeteria. It could reduce the amount of supervision needed in the morning."

The hourlong visit Wednesday allowed school officials into classrooms for a firsthand look. They said they plan to discuss the program with other system employees in the coming weeks.

"I am really impressed," said Shannon Adams, superintendent of Jackson County Schools.

They also will discuss their observations at the next transportation committee meeting.

The committee has met three times this school year to try and add instructional time and get students home faster in the afternoons. Committee members discussed the importance of breakfast in that process.

Many students in Jackson County qualify for free or reduced meals, and breakfast times in the morning needed to be considered when setting school start and end times.