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Are we having the wrong conversation about student achievement?

As North Carolina school children head into “the testing season” at school with end-of-grade, end-of-course and North Carolina Final Exams, teachers begin to give their pep talks.  Get your rest, eat a good breakfast, and study are the points I make every single year as exams begin. My own kids’ schools call home to remind us, as parents, to make sure the students are doing these things. Surely, if my own kids as well as my students are studying, working hard and taking care of themselves, they will be successful on their exams, according to some mysterious algorithm the state uses for high-stakes testing. But, what if some kids are not able to take care of themselves?

Several reports have come out recently that indicate the conversations around smaller class size and reading interventions to help students reach grade level targets may only be part of the solution to student achievement. In the US, one in five children live without consistent access to food.

On March 20, 2018, the American Educational Research Journal published a research study by Duke University’s Anna Gassman-Pines and Laura Bellows. The study looked at 148,000 public school children whose families received food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). They found student test scores were higher three weeks after the SNAP benefits were received. 

Another study published in the North Carolina Medical Journal on March 21, 2018 by Michelle Hughes and Whitney Tucker from NC Child suggests that poverty may need to be considered an adverse childhood experience. And finally, NC Child released the 2018 County Data Cards on child well-being and results are given for both our state and each individual county. This data reports 48 percent of NC children live in poor or low-income homes and that only 58% of third graders in our state are proficient in reading.

Children who have success in early grades are more likely to graduate from high school on time and students from low-income families are less likely to graduate from high school, which only perpetuates this issue.

Many studies have demonstrated the correlation between good health (proper nutrition, the value of eating breakfast, physical activity) and academic achievement. If students have lower test scores during the beginning and end of the SNAP benefit period, this could mean lower achievement if one of the high-stakes tests are given during this time. Students are not working at full capacity due to a lack of proper nutrition. As research continues to point out, the achievement gap in test scores is accentuated by a socio-economic factor.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have compiled the results of many of these studies in a resource that includes evidence, actions, and resources to support our students.

Schools and teachers have long been aware of this issue. Many children receive two or three of their daily meals from school, but schools supplement with Backpack Programs. Each Friday afternoon, students in need are given a backpack full of food to eat during the weekend.  Often, schools are able to supplement extra food for holidays and long weekends too. For over fifteen years, Feeding America has partnered with local food banks and community support groups to provide students food for the weekends and summer months.

Many teachers, including myself, keep a small drawer of food for students who might need it. Does your child’s school have a community garden? If it does, its purpose goes far beyond the lessons on plant growth and ecology. In NC, both chambers have introduced Small Farms to Healthier Schools legislation. Senate Bill 637 and House Bill 603 appropriates funding for school districts to purchase food from local farms. However, there are currently very few conversations around the growing research that student achievement is directly linked to access to quality, nutritious food and creating solutions to support our lowest-achieving students.

Class size and reading/literacy are certainly critical conversations we must continue to focus on. However, as we head into the end of the school year, being an advocate in your own district can provide much needed support for students to have maximum focus and energy for their exams. Consider these actions:

  • Drop off a few extra snacks at your local school before exams
  • Volunteer at a local food bank or Summer Lunch program in your district
  • Advocate for legislation that supports student food programs
  • Join partnerships with community food banks, PTA groups and school improvement teams to improve student nutrition outside the school day
Marci Harvey

Marci Harvey was a 2014 Forsyth County Teacher of the Year semifinalist. She joined the science faculty at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in 2017 after serving Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools for 20 years. Harvey is also a 2017-18 NC Teacher Voice Fellow with the Hope Street Group.