SOUTH PORTLAND — It’s 8:30 in the morning and workers in the Kaler Elementary School cafeteria are loading up cardboard boxes with cereal, juice and milk, and even hot, pre-packaged pancakes.
The boxes of food are on their way to classrooms, where students will arrive 15-30 minutes before classes begin to eat at their desks and chat with each other and their teachers.
Sue Everett, who runs the kitchen at Kaler, said the so-called Mentoring Breakfast is a big success.
“We’re lucky to have good kids here,” she said. “They love it. They never complain about the food.”
The goal is to help Kaler’s 176 kindergarten through fifth-grade students build relationships with teachers and other adults, and to ease the students into the school day, rather than having them rush into their classrooms at the last minute.
The program began this year along with several other changes when Kaler launched a new instructional model of project-based learning. The changes were meant to address low attendance and less-than-adequate progress toward meeting state standards on the part of poorer students and students with learning disabilities.
The program also addresses student hunger.
“Lots of children here don’t have breakfast at home,” guidance counselor Peg Dineen said. “At this school in particular, there’s a lot of kids who don’t have much.”
Sixty-two percent of Kaler’s 176 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. That’s the highest percentage in South Portland, according to Martha Spencer, director of school nutrition.
In Brem Stoner’s fourth-grade classroom on Monday, students were sitting at their desks, slurping up cereal with milk and sipping on cartons of apple juice. Everyone was eating.
“We’re not hungry now,” 10-year-old student Abby Tinkham said.
“Some kids did come to school hungry, which could make it harder for them to focus,” Stoner said. “Breakfast is very much part of the routine here now.”
Principal Diane Lang said that by taking out the stress of providing breakfast at home, parents can focus on getting their children to school on time.
Then, when the students arrive, they have time to ease into their day “so they’re not immediately struck with academics,” she said.
Previously, the beginning of the day “was very rushed,” Lang said. “This program addresses the issue of getting students here on time, every day.”
Attendance has improved since the Mentoring Breakfast program launched, Lang said. The program has had other effects, too.
Lang and other faculty members said the number of student visits to the school nurse in the mornings has declined noticeably this year. She said she thought many of those visits came from students wanting to connect one-on-one with an adult, but that hunger could have been a factor as well.
In addition to the daily meals, an entire grade will have a sit-down, home-cooked family-style meal in the cafeteria once a month.
Spencer, the district’s nutrition director, said she’d like to see a program like Kaler’s adopted at the other elementary schools in the city, but costs would be prohibitive. Breakfast is offered cafeteria-style at the other schools, but it’s a voluntary endeavor.
Because of Kaler’s high eligibility for free and reduced-price lunch, the program hasn’t cost the district any additional money.
“I don’t know if we could afford a bunch of boxed breakfasts at a school like Skillin, which has more like 400 students,” Spencer said. “But I think it’s been a very successful program.”
Kaler Elementary School kindergarten teacher Sue Curado, second from right, chats with students during a Mentoring Breakfast on Monday, April 2. The new program feeds every student at the South Portland school before classes begin at 9 a.m.
Abby Tinkham, 10, and Matt Crosby, 11, eat cereal during Kaler Elementary School’s “Mentoring Breakfast” on Monday, April 2. School administrators say the program has reduced visits to the nurse and increased the school’s attendance record.