If more Philly kids eat free breakfast, will achievement rise? This school says yes.

Six-year-old Jenny Song grabs breakfast in the cafeteria of Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Philadelphia. Attendance and other markers have increased as a result of increased school breakfast participation, officials say.

In Michael Halko’s fifth-grade class at Francis Scott Key Elementary, the first 30 minutes of every day are sacred – it’s time for morning meeting, and, most important, yogurt, burritos, and muffins.

Students grab bags stuffed with free breakfast items on their way in. They chat with Halko and their classmates and settle into the day. Halko loses some instructional time, but the trade-off is well worth it, he said.

“If kids are hungry, they’re not hearing me,” said Halko, a 28-year veteran Philadelphia School District teacher. Food makes a difference. “They’re more alert; they’re more upbeat. They pay attention. More kids eating breakfast in school is a total positive.”

Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and other dignitaries toured Key, at Eighth and Wolf Streets, in South Philadelphia, Tuesday to tout increased participation in the school breakfast program districtwide – an effort, they say, that has paid dividends, with increased student attendance and achievement.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Students enjoy their breakfast at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, Philadelphia.

Every student in Philadelphia is eligible for free breakfast and lunch, but last year, when students had to show up before school to eat, just 10 percent of the school’s 475 children took advantage of the meal, said Pauline Cheung, the principal.

Over the summer, Cheung brainstormed – what would it take to feed more kids? More than three-quarters of the children who attend Key live in poverty, but even if there is food at home, the pressure of getting out the door on time means breakfast can be an impossibility. The breakfast period was moved to the start of the school day.

“I wanted the kids to feel more alert, to not be hungry,” she said. “I want them to know that here, there will always be food.”

Key was one of 30 district schools chosen for a breakfast push, so Cheung got help in the form of a staffer to ready breakfasts. She also formed a club known as “Breakfast Ambassadors,” made up of older Key students who come to school early to distribute the grab-and-go bags to classrooms. Older students eat in their rooms; the youngest learners gather in the cafeteria to eat.

The logistics aren’t easy in Key, the district’s oldest school, built in 1889 – there is no full-service kitchen, and space is cramped. But the staff makes it work. And students are committed, owning the breakfast program. They clean up after themselves, eliminating the potential for trash problems.

The results are clear, Cheung said: Key’s breakfast participation has jumped by 66 percent, and more kids are coming to school every day. And even those kids who opt not to eat breakfast still have access to the food – at the end of the breakfast period, uneaten food goes onto “share tables” that students can grab from when they’re hungry.

There is a disparity in breakfast programs districtwide. Key, a K-6, is one of 49 district schools that offer breakfast in the classroom, a new focus for the district, up from 43 last year. (There are 215 schools systemwide.)

So far this school year, 44 percent of students who attend school are participating in breakfast programs, compared with 41 percent last school year. On average, that’s about 4,500 more breakfasts being served to students daily.

Still, there is work to do, said Hite.

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite at Francis Scott Key Elementary. Hite highlighted increased participation in the district’s school breakfast program.

“We have to help schools get over why they can’t do it,” said Hite. That point was driven home at Key, he said, where he chatted up students who were matter-of-fact about what eating breakfast at school means to them.

“They’ve formed a community,” the superintendent said. “While they’re eating breakfast, they’re going over their homework. They’re talking.”

Councilwoman Helen Gym has long been a proponent of the school breakfast program. Gym, who stopped to chat with Key students (muffins and pancakes received the best reviews), said that Philadelphia needs this concerted push to make sure children access the breakfast available to them.

“In North Philadelphia, childhood hunger has tripled in this decade,” said Gym.

Jenny Loo is happy to help make that happen.

Loo, a sixth grader, is one of Key’s Breakfast Ambassadors. She doesn’t mind coming to school early to help organize breakfast for her classmates, she said. (And she hasn’t missed a day of school since kindergarten, so she’s always there.)

“More people come to school because of breakfast,” said Jenny, 12. “People have a full stomach, they’re happier, and it’s easier to learn.”

Camera icon JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Councilwoman Helen Gym talks with 8-year-old Caitlynn Yi-Ngoy, during breakfast in the classroom at Francis Scott Key Elementary.