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2-11-13 Education Issues in the News - Charter Schools, School Nutrition Requirement
NJ Spotlight - In Local Battles Against Charters, Florence Township Joins the Fray…Burlington County school district raises familiar refrain, charters drain too much money from local school “…The state has already pulled back since Christie’s first year in office from approving new charter schools in suburban communities, and even new charters anywhere. Talk continues in the Legislature over a rewrite of the state’s 15-year-old charter school law, adding more say for local districts and more accountability for charters. The next round of approvals is expected to be announced this month, providing further indication of how -- and how much -- charter schools will play in this election year, when both Christie and the entire Legislature are up for vote…”

Philadelphia Inquirer - Do new school lunch rules go too far?

NJ Spotlight - In Local Battles Against Charters, Florence Township Joins the Fray…Burlington County school district raises familiar refrain, charters drain too much money from local schools

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By John Mooney, February 11, 2013 in Education|8 Comments

In what is becoming an annual ritual in towns across the state, another charter school is running into local resistance.

Related Links

Florence School Board Resolution

Riverbank Charter School of Excellence

This latest skirmish, being fought in a small town in Burlington County, once again puts the Christie administration on the defensive about the role -- and cost -- of charter schools in the suburbs.

The Riverbank Charter School of Excellence in Florence Township, which opened in 2009, now serves 142 students from kindergarten through third grade. As part of its charter renewal, it applied to the state to add a fourth and fifth grade.

The state’s decision is to come later this month, but the Florence school board unanimously approved a resolution in January opposing the charter’s application. And the local district -- from which Riverbank draws most of it students -- has talked about taking the matter to court if the Christie administration goes ahead and approves the expansion.

Florence’s argument -- which has been heard in a half-dozen communities from Teaneck to Cherry Hill -- is a familiar two-part refrain. First, a charter school does not belong in a district where the local schools are relatively successful.

Second, the price that a district must pay a charter for local students who attend serves a big blow to school budgets already stretched and strained.

“This is a really significant impact on a small district like ourselves,” said Donna Ambrosius, superintendent of the 1,700-student K-12 district. ““We accept that the school is here, and we have absorbed it in our budget, but with this expansion, it would be devastating to our budget.”

If the expansion is approved, she said, the district will be shelling out $1.2 million in the next school year, the same amount that the district’s latest budget draft is currently over the state’s 2 percent cap. In 2015, Florence will pay over $2 million to the charter in 2015 -- almost 10 percent of the districts $25 million budget, the superintendent said.

“This explains why we don’t have middle school sports, why we have larger class sizes,” Ambrosius said, adding that outsourcing classroom assistants may be next. “When you take $1.2 million right off, we have nothing else.”

An online petition has also been started by a group of Florence parents, the kind of campaign that is becoming increasingly common in New Jersey’s charter wars.

The fury of the opposition was not something that Riverbank principal Beth Kelley said she was prepared for when she first applied to the state back in October to make renovations to the former parochial school it now leases. The renovations would add needed classrooms to accommodate more than 70 new students envisioned in the expansion.

“Never was it Riverbank’s intention to cause such dissension in Florence Township, and it is disheartening that certain members of the community have such a rebuttal,” said Kelley, a former teacher at PACE Charter School in Hamilton who also helped found the school.

“I know even some of our students are starting to be affected by this and talking about it,” she said.

Kelley said she recognized the financial pressure on the district, but claimed some of the criticisms of her school are misleading, if not inaccurate.

A primary point of contention concerns the accomplishments of Riverbank itself, where 100 percent of its third graders passed the state’s achievement tests last year. The district maintains that the charter has fewer special-needs and at-risk students than the comparable Florence enrollment. Kelley said that’s not so, and its skewed by the small number of her students overall.

“When you look at the demographics of Florence, we’re not far off,” she said.

But Kelley kept coming back to the argument that suburban communities have every right to have alternatives as do any other. “Not every school is a perfect fit for every student,” she said. “This is an alternative, a free public choice for parents.”

In the Spotlight

Whatever the local dynamics, the dispute has caught the attention of many of the biggest players in the New Jersey’s charter school debate.

The grassroots advocacy group Save Our Schools New Jersey has become a formidable force in the debate statewide, galvanizing local groups in campaigns that helped beat back charters in the past two years in places like Highland Park, Princeton, and Cherry Hill.

Speak Up NJ is another advocacy group that has more recently grown out of the charter fight, and is helping lead the Florence petition drive. One organizer in both groups said the Riverbank case is a little different from the past ones.

"This is the first opposition of a charter expansion four years into operation,” said Darcie Cimarusti, a founder of Speak Up NJ and organizer with SOS NJ. “When the charter has had life breathed into it, the emotions run much deeper on both sides. "

“Parents in the district are scared of losing more of the already scarce resources left in the district, and parents in the charter are scared they won’t be able to expand the school they have come to love and want their children to stay in,” said Cimarusti.

“The battle isn’t over a hypothetical -- there are real kids on both sides of this equation," she added.

The administration was forced to answer some questions on the dispute last week, when state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified before the Senate education committee and was asked by state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), who represents Florence, as to where the state draws the line for placing charter schools.

Not speaking specifically to the Florence application, Cerf said it was about addressing an unmet need in a community, be it large or small, and he’d be more inclined to approve a charter that helped provide for kids who were not being served in the local district.

That has become the mantra for Cerf, as well as Gov. Chris Christie, as the issue has gained attention statewide.

“I am much more sympathetic to a charter application, if there are kids who are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need,” Cerf said.

He also said that finances do matter. “When you have a charter school in a smaller community, it has a larger impact,” Cerf commented.

Still, where state will draw that line in Florence will be intriguing, especially given the host of factors at play.

The state has already pulled back since Christie’s first year in office from approving new charter schools in suburban communities, and even new charters anywhere. Talk continues in the Legislature over a rewrite of the state’s 15-year-old charter school law, adding more say for local districts and more accountability for charters.

The next round of approvals is expected to be announced this month, providing further indication of how -- and how much -- charter schools will play in this election year, when both Christie and the entire Legislature are up for vote.

The renewal decisions for a handful of schools will come at the very end of the month, with Florence likely to be the most-watched decision. State evaluators have visited the school, Kelley said, poring over books and test scores and scrutinizing classrooms.

Kelley said the topic of local opposition did come up in that visit, but she remains hopeful.

“It’s certainly seems this is becoming standard for the choice movement in higher-performing districts and an issue they have to contend with,” said Kelley.

“There are not many of us, but we’re all facing the same battle,” she said.

NJSpotlight (http://s.tt/1zCDu)


Philadelphia Inquirer - Do new school lunch rules go too far?

Editor's Note

"What's For Lunch?" is a three-part, multimedia investigative report by Burlington County Times.

Running Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the series takes a hard look at what's for lunch in your kids' schools, finds out whether districts can both meet federal standards and still fill stomachs and shows just how far schools will go to get kids to eat better.

By Jeannie O'Sullivan, Marion Callahan and Gwen Shrift Staff writersPhillyBurbs.com

Posted: Monday, February 11, 2013 6:30 am | Updated: 6:40 am, Mon Feb 11, 2013.

Reducing childhood obesity through healthier foods is the goal of the new federal mandates that overhauled school meals, but some say the rules go too far.

The new meal rules set limits on overall calories and content, which has led to rumbling stomachs and compromised performance in some classrooms and on the athletic field, according to some legislators, school administrators and students.

"There's days when the food can be really good and there are days the food is just like, 'I'll pass,' " said Pemberton Township High School junior Peter Delagarza.

Pemberton senior Kasi Cassidy buys lunch most days, but called the meals "repetitive" and said she's always on the lookout for "one or two things off to the side that you can grab and choose if you want."

Others, like Pemberton junior Taylor Dorman, bring lunch from home because she prefers it to school lunch choices.

And then there are those who just work harder to find something they like in school lunches.

Beverly City Elementary School first-grader Lamar Giles has developed a way to deal with the changes.

"I just eat the stuff I really like," said Lamar, who prefers hash browns, hamburgers and chicken patties to vegetables.

When it comes to plant-based preferences, the students definitely take to fruit more than greens.

Lamar is a fan of oranges, and Beverly second-grader Ashton Stargell likes apples, plums, pears and frozen grapes, although he reaches for cheese sticks first.

“I don’t like vegetables, but I like fruit, mostly grapes and strawberries,” said Ashton's classmate, Stephen Larocque, who also admits to picking and choosing what he'll eat.

Such picking and choosing may mean some kids don't get the nutrition they need from school lunch, according to the Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The trade group says calorie, protein and other limits on school lunches are depriving growing students of the fuel they need to learn.

“Dietary guidelines should not deprive students of sufficient calories and protein for healthy growth and mental alertness. Overly restrictive dietary guidelines in the school lunch program will not solve the serious, national problem of childhood obesity," according to the Washington, D.C.-based trade group for agriculture agencies.

Many critics including Rich Wolbert, president of the Beverly Board of Education, have called the mandates a "one-size-fits-all approach."

"Every child is different, with different metabolisms, different needs and different situations that lead to obesity. Healthy choices, availability to healthier low-cost meals and programs to get them moving are the way to healthier kids; not what the federal government is mandating," said Wolbert, who wistfully recalled his own school days, when awards were given for physical fitness.

"We have shifted from encouragement to mandates, and I can assure you, there aren't many kids and even adults who like to be told what to do," he said.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which guided the changes, defended the calorie limits, explaining the government needed to put the brakes on a lunch program that, for too long, was serving students nearly double the recommended number of calories.

“The updated requirements are not designed to mandate a one-size-fits-all approach to school lunch and, in fact, they now allow for a range of calories with both a minimum and maximum level, adjusted to the age of the student,” the USDA said in a statement. “Previously, the meal patterns had required a minimum number of calories to be served. However, scientific experts at the (National Academy of Science) Institute Of Medicine identified this as a critical area of concern since, with no limit to the number of calories being served, some students were receiving nearly double the recommended amount of calories at lunch.”

By the numbers

Based on complaints and criticism, the USDA informed Congress in December that it was changing the meat and grain limits -- but not the calorie limit -- for this school year.

The USDA rules limit fat, sugar and sodium content, with the goal of reducing childhood obesity and improving nutrition. They set minimum and maximum amounts for calories and food groups. Unique guidelines are set in three categories: kindergarten through fifth grades; sixth through eighth grades; and ninth through 12th grades.

Specific guidelines are set for vegetable subgroups of dark green and red/orange foods, beans/legumes (i.e. chick peas and lentils) and starchy food (potatoes, corn). Whole-grain products must compose half of the grains consumed, a category that includes bread, pasta, rice and the more exotic couscous.

Deborah Beauvais, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a nutrition supervisor for a western New York school district, acknowledges the amounts of food haven't changed dramatically, just the proportions of what goes into meals.

"(The mandates) really caused us to look at and reformulate what our menus are looking like. What I find somewhat disappointing is that I had a great program (before the mandates)," said Beauvais.

"It’s kind of like putting a puzzle together," she said of meeting the new guidelines.

Beauvais said the limits on grains, the most popular food group in her district, are “very restrictive compared to (former) offerings," which included pizza products, wraps, bagels and specialty rolls, most of which went over the federal ounce limits. The grain limits also meant students in the strictest threshold, kindergarten through fifth grades, couldn't eat a two-slice sandwich every day without exceeding the limits.

Also, the weekly caps for meat and other protein content — which were no more than 10 ounces for kindergarten through eighth grades and 12 ounces for high school students — meant that a familiar staple like a cheeseburger may exceed the total limits.

Staying within the weekly calorie limits has been the biggest challenge in the Moorestown School District, according to business administrator Lynn Shugars. For example, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can no longer be offered daily in the elementary schools.

“It’s a favorite for kids, but we can’t offer it every day because of the calories. But we are experimenting with different things and keeping track of what’s popular and constantly making adjustments every month to keep kids happy,” Shugars said.

Saturated fats, which are lipids that are solid at room temperature, cannot exceed 10 percent of total calories, and trans fats have been eliminated. Guidelines also govern milk products; only low-fat, fat-free or skim milk is acceptable.

The calorie limits -- 650 for grades K-five, 700 for grades six to eight and 850 for grades nine to 12 -- have been blasted by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, which called for a more comprehensive approach, including dietary education and increased physical activity.

Introduced by North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring during NASDA’s annual meeting in Des Moines, the government trade group's policy statement calls the new guidelines “well-intentioned, but falling short of providing a comprehensive policy for educating students in healthy living.”

Moorestown's Shugars and the nutrition academy's Beauvais agreed the health-minded mandates are well-intentioned, but said the new choices can be a hard sell to the students.

“It’s admirable and it’s the right thing to do. But it’s certainly a challenge. More fruits and vegetables are great, but it’s such a challenge for the kids. They’re not used to it,” Shugars said.

Food and thought

If students don't eat the balanced meals provided by the school and opt to go hungry or eat junk food, their schoolwork will likely suffer because the link between nourishment and mental capacity is critical, according to a former school nurse who's an associate professor of nursing and childhood studies at Rutgers Camden.

"They can't engage," said Robert Atkins, who also directs the Rutgers Camden's Nurse Certification Program.

Brain function relies on glucose, with support from other food groups, a theory that has been proven repeatedly by clinical research, he explained.

"It (the body) needs to have the sugars, a balance of proteins and even fats. When they’re (kids) not nourished, their stomachs are empty and they're not able to concentrate," said Atkins.

Insufficient nutrition can have long-term impacts as well, according to family physician Dr. Mary Campagnolo.

"Long term, nutrition affects the membrane structure of our brain cells, which can add or detract from our overall performance at school or work, and our intelligence," said Campagnolo, medical director for primary care at the Virtua Medical Group and chief of the Department of Family Medicine at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly.

Energy levels aren’t the only health-related vulnerability.

Wolbert, the Beverly City Board of Education president, said new and unfamiliar foods can exacerbate autism spectrum disorder, which affects several students in his district.

“Sometimes, it’s the texture of the food, the smell or the sight of certain foods that can over-stimulate the children with ASD and it can actually cause physical pain for the child,"he explained. "Many parents who have children with ASD know this and will pack home lunches for these children, but there are parents with ASD kids who qualify for free or reduced (-price) breakfast and lunch and these children will just opt to forgo eating entirely rather than experience the discomforts associated with eating these foods.”

Despite Wolbert's concerns, Beverly City Elementary School students are eating new and different foods, thanks to taste tests and other efforts to make foods attractive to kids, said Sharon McLoone, an area supervisor for the Nutri-Serve school management company that serves Beverly.

“There’s not a lot of waste here, whereas if you go to other districts, it’s a different story," she said.

The athletic impact

Perhaps no one has criticized the mandates more theatrically than a group of students in the Wallace County High School in Sharon Springs, Kan. They took their message to YouTube, where it has received more than 1 million hits.

The video for a song titled "We Are Hungry" — to the tune of the hit "We Are Young" by Fun — shows famished student athletes weakly attempting to throw a basketball, collapsing on the track and struggling on the weight bench.

Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming his love for beef, the star of the viral video sings, "By the time you go to practice and you feel like falling down, I'll carry you home."

Staff writer Matt Zimmaro contributed to this report.

Jeannie O’Sullivan: 609-871-8068; email: josullivan@phillyBurbs.com; Twitter: @jeannieosulliva.

Marion Callahan: 215-345-3060; mcallahan@phillyburbs.com, Twitter: @marioncallahan

Gwen Shrift: 215-949-4204; gshrift@phillyburbs.com

© 2013 phillyburbs.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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