December 2, 2011

Schools in need: Surrey breakfast program feeding hungry students, keeping them in school

Harry Sandhu, Surrey school district’s safe school liaison, says many Georges Vanier parents struggle to get their kids ready on time. Photograph by: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun

“A six-year-old that’s hungry is not a pretty picture.”

Pat Horstead’s observation, which creates the disturbing image of childhood cuteness distorted by want, came Wednesday in a small cupboard of an office in Surrey’s Georges Vanier elementary in the heart of Whalley.

Horstead, an assistant superintendent for Surrey School District, was explaining why the district was seeking the help of The Vancouver Sun Children’s Fund Adopt-a-School Campaign to help feed the youngest of children attending eight of the district’s 120 schools.

It was an aside that reduced a whole page of Charles Dickens’s famous parable, A Christmas Carol, to this : If for nothing more than their own protection, (the well-fed) should alleviate hunger.

This message comes as the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals to Scrooge – the epitome of society’s indifference to those in need – two young children whom had formerly been hidden under his robes, a boy and girl, “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish …”

“This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want. Beware them both….”

Dickens was drawing a straight line between childhood hunger, deprivation and lack of education to future social disorder and crime.

One hundred and sixty-eight years later, Horstead does the same.

“If you like, you can call the breakfast program a gang reduction strategy,” she said.

It was introduced at the tail end of the last school year and then again in October for eight inner city elementary schools suffering chronic absenteeism rates in their kindergarten to Grade 3 classes.

All have 20 per cent of students missing 10 per cent or more of classes, a threshold that portends major problems, said Merlin Chatwin, manager for Surrey’s community schools partnership.

“Research shows that once you hit that 10-per-cent mark it affects your ability to be successful as a student and it affects the ability of the rest of the class, too, as teachers have to keep going back to catch you up,” said Chatwin.

There are a number of ad hoc breakfast programs for hungry students organized by teachers and principals throughout the inner city areas of Metro Vancouver, most spurred by the sort of reaction that sends people into burning buildings.

But Horstead’s was more cerebral than emotional.

In a rare example of hard-nosed honesty – given how the subject can be milked – Horstead said it wasn’t concern with children having no breakfast that moved her to act.

“My primary teachers kept coming to me saying, ‘These kids aren’t learning to read and it’s frustrating because they don’t get here until 10 and if they got here during instruction [that occurs primarily in the morning] they’d be okay readers.’ ” “So the impetus for this program [Attendance Matters] was not really to feed kids but to ensure they got the literacy they needed.”

Breakfast served at 8 a.m. is the bait to entice them into school.

It does, of course, have the coincidental benefit of now feeding those who did come to school on time but hungry.

Georges Vanier principal Antonio Vendramin said Attendance Matters is designed to remove the hurdles that keep young children away from school or prevent them from learning due to tiredness or hunger.

“We’ve got one child who has missed 24 days of school already. That’s a full month and we’ve only reached the end of November but it’s not uncommon,” he said.

Harry Sandhu, the district’s safe school liaison, works with families struggling with poverty. Many are single moms with a number of young children and overwhelmed by the effort of getting them ready for school on time.

“These are families where if the mom has to get four kids ready just to take one to school it isn’t going to happen,” he said.

Vendramin said the program was directed at the youngest students because research shows that if children are not regularly attending school during kindergarten to Grade 3 they will likely be part of the at-risk population when older.

“They’ll hang in from Grade 5 to 7 but if they’ve missed that core literacy time the gap will start to show, the level of disengagement increases, and when they get to high school they say ‘why bother’ and they’re gone,” said Vendramin.

The breakfasts are spartan – mostly cereal and toast, which is all the hard-pressed budget will allow. The Vancouver Sun’s readers are being asked to provide the funds to enable the eight schools to serve fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and eggs.

It will cost about $4,000 a school each year to provide these items – $32,000 for all eight schools.

Chatwin said the district would also welcome forming a relationship with a food supplier that could assist.

Even though the program was only introduced last year, the effects were immediate and profound, said Horstead.

A number of children whose behaviour was formerly a problem have calmed down.

“These are kids that if we can get them into school and keep them learning, won’t be swayed into some of the activities that cause such issues for society such as gangs and violence.

“It sounds simple – give the kids breakfast and isn’t that great? – but then you have to look at the ramifications and what the effects would be if we don’t.”

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