When I drive past the Mars Candy Company in Chicago, I expect to see a perfectly executed landscape. The flowers and plants change with the seasons, but the lawn, shrubs, flowers and plants are consistently flawless. My one and only experience inside the Mars building was about 50 years ago when my class took a field trip there. Even now, I remember the spotless machinery, bowls, and equipment inside that produced the candy bars that we loved so much. As I learned about leadership, I came to understand the importance of developing shared values with your community/business/school. It is a challenging process that not only takes a great deal of time, but it requires the leaders to push every decision through the filter of those values. Leaders, through their own behavior and the decisions they make, help cement the values of the community. Sometimes, hard conversations and decisions result.
Over the past several years, our school district has made a commitment to making learning accessible to all students through inclusion of students with special needs, providing equitable learning opportunities for students whose first language is not English, and extending accelerated learning to the top 10% of students. We have co-teaching classrooms in every grade level in all of our schools. The co-teachers have been provided with professional development to learn how to modify, differentiate, and create a climate of respect for all students’ needs. Every student in our school district has a wireless device with access to learning software that is constantly updated to provide our students with the most relevant. current information. Our teachers are supported to best integrate technology with before school, after school, summertime, common plan time professional development as well as access to instructional coaches who will help teachers to execute just about anything in their classrooms and school communities.
Two years ago, our school leaders became aware of the negative effects that poor diet and activity has had on our community. We learned that we have higher than average obesity in our schools. It was a no-brainer for us to work with our staff, parents, and students to increase awareness about healthy eating, adding opportunities for fitness, and changing the food we serve our students. Our principals’ commitment to the US Healthy Schools Challenge was consistent with our values. We wanted our students to have access to the same healthy foods and fitness opportunities that children in the top performing schools have. Research shows that high poverty, high minority communities have the highest rates of obesity and the accompanying health issues. There are many studies that show that children with ADHD and autism have greater than average difficulty metabolizing sugars and that sugar may trigger fluctuation in the ability to concentrate and focus as well as to behave appropriately.
Our school’s food provider changed our schools’ menus drastically to help us to achieve the US Healthy Schools Challenge. We added a daily fruit and vegetable kiosk, a two times per week fruit or vegetable afternoon snack, and a more frequent salad bar option.. The daily menu eliminated chocolate milk, limited the sugars, increased the whole grain products, reduced the processed foods, all while keeping the cost to students the same as in previous years.
The challenge to our values came this week when an incentive for the school district to earn more money for every meal served to students receiving free and reduced lunches. The administrators at the district level agreed to follow a regional menu for the week instead of the specialized menu provided to our district. The principals were not consulted in the decision and were left wondering what had happened to the commitment to our students to provide access to healthy foods. Students, who have been educated over the past couple of years to read labels, wondered why they were being served breakfast bars with 11-23 grams of sugar all week. When I asked why we served a breakfast bar with twice the daily recommended amount of sugar, I was told that we were serving a federally approved menu this week so that we would qualify for an additional 6 cents per meal increase to the district.
What happened to our values? Are we so easily influenced by money that we abandon our values? As often happens in school bureaucracies, a decision was made that did not include those closest to the students. Our only option now is to repair the damage. We need to help our staff, students, and parents understand that we operate in a flawed system. While Mrs. Obama is encouraging healthy eating, the federal system that provides meals in schools is not providing the best dietary choices. Our students will benefit by challenging that system and will learn a lot in the process.
Our schools, like businesses, will flourish with consistency to strong, well-determined values and beliefs that provide equitable access to the very best that we can provide to all of our students, all of the time.