Will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new free breakfast program produce thousands more graduates?
Well ... I'd take that claim with a grain of salt.
Cindy Hobbs, who heads the CMS child nutrition program, was ecstatic when the school board OK'ed a plan to provide free breakfast to all students, regardless of family income. By removing the stigma associated with getting a free meal, supporters of the plan hope kids will start their school day with a nutritious meal, eventually improving behavior, attendance and academic performance.
"We could be looking at 3,500 more children to graduate, based on their 20 percent graduation rate," she told the board just before the 7-1 vote.
When I asked about that number, she acknowledged it's more of a hope than a solid projection, and one that would take many years to play out.
The CMS presentation used numbers drawn from "Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis," done by Deloitte for the advocacy group No Kid Hungry. It's the kind of study designed to make a case, with clear language, nice visuals and strong conclusions. It cites findings that students who participate in school breakfast programs attend 1.5 more days of school a year, score 17.5 percent higher on math tests and have fewer behavior problems. The 20 percent figure comes from a different study, which found that students who miss fewer than five days of school a year -- not necessarily those who eat breakfast -- are 20 percent more likely to graduate. Based on that, Deloitte extrapolated that the Maryland program they were reviewing might "see up to 56,000 additional students achieving math proficiency and 14,000 more high school graduates over time."
Hobbs said she used that same approach to extrapolate a CMS increase in graduates over an unspecified period of time.
The source cited in the Deloitte footnote is a 36-page academic research review on breakfast studies done since the 1990s. It's harder to get through than a big bowl of unsalted grits. I did my best, and found several studies showing that students performed better on some tests, logged better attendance and appeared to be better behaved when they had breakfast. But, as tends to be the case with real academic research, it's chock full of qualifiers, along the lines of "not statistically significant" and "another data source produced contradictory results."
There's no mention of any study linking breakfast to graduation rates.
Common sense tells us that sausage biscuits aren't the golden ticket to education reform. It brings me back to a notion I've written about before, that real change comes from 100 one-percent solutions, not one or two big reforms. It would be lunacy to offer free breakfasts and figure the work is done, but CMS leaders are hoping it's one small piece of a program to help more kids succeed.
While we're on the biscuit beat, did anyone else cringe at the notion that kids are getting "turkey sausage on a whole-grain biscuit"? Hobbs told the board that school cafeterias avoid pork because many families have religious prohibitions.
I happen to like turkey sausage. But a whole-grain biscuit? Is that even a real thing?
Hobbs laughed when I asked. "They're ... OK," she said tactfully. As a Southerner, she said, she wouldn't serve or eat them, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires certain portions of whole grains in school meals.