Anchorage School District says students benefit from longer lunch and recess

1st grader Evelyn Teo (standing) and kindergartner Brooklyn Ortiz (swinging) play on the swing set at Kasuun Elementary in Anchorage on March 2nd, 2020. They say they feel good about having more time at recess. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

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Anchorage School District administrators say a pilot program designed to enhance student wellness at elementary schools has largely been a success. 

Researchers evaluating the program say it could be a model for districts across the country.

The pilot, also known as ASD’s Wellness Initiative, asked participating schools to give students 10 minutes to eat breakfast and 20 minutes to eat lunch – not including the time it takes to get to the cafeteria or standing in line. The pilot also added 10 more minutes to recess for a total of 30 minutes. 

Overall, students at schools that participated in the initiative were happier and less hungry than students at other schools, according to a presentation provided to the school board Tuesday night.

Read more: Under a new pilot program, several Anchorage elementary schools will have longer lunch and recess next fall

Administrators also said teachers and staff reported longer lunch and recess appeared to reduce disruptive behavior in younger students. 

But, balancing the schedule proved to be a significant challenge for many schools.

“I would say the results aren’t surprising,” said ASD Deputy Superintendent Mark Stock. “The short school day that we have in Alaska, six and a half hours, is always something that rears its head.”

According to a report Stock gave to the school board in August 2018, Alaska students spend about 1,118 hours in school per year. This is below the national average for instructional time which ranges from 1,150 – 1,350 hours. This often means that Alaska schools are increasingly trying to fit more activities into a window of time that hasn’t gotten any bigger.

Recently, debate over the district’s operating budget resulted in cuts to elementary health education, which will be absorbed by classroom teachers, and a one hour late start or early dismissal day per week pending approval by the Anchorage Assembly.

“That’s one of the drawbacks that came up repeatedly from staff is that ‘I can’t get it all in’,” said Stock.

One requirement of the pilot was that schools maintain the integrity of the time they spend teaching reading.

Stock says five schools reported needing to shorten reading time in order to provide a longer recess and lunch. Other schools shortened science and social studies time.

But, there was another major obstacle to the program: staffing.

“One of the trade-offs is I get more time with the kids, but I also have to do more lunch duties or recess duty,” Stock explained. “One of the needs that came out clearly was that we need more lunch staff.”

That need was apparent at Kassun Elementary, one of the 19 schools to complete the pilot this semester.   

“I didn’t expect the major backlash from teachers,” said Kassun Elementary Principal Tarlesha Wayne. 

Kasuun Elementary Principal Tarlesha Wayne congratulates a student on losing a front tooth on March 2nd, 2020. She said her main priority is ensuring that students have enough supervision, even if that means she and other classroom staff have supervise students themselves. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

Wayne said an inability to consistently staff “noon duties,” or staff members who can solely monitor students at lunch and recess, meant that the responsibility fell to teachers and principals. 

She said in some ways, she prefers staffing this way because teachers usually have more training in managing students and their behaviors than someone who may be a parent or community volunteer. 

“But, I didn’t realize how much of an impact it would have on them [teachers],” she said. “I hear a lot of teachers say ‘I’m so tired’ or ‘I’m way more drained than I was before.’”

She said Kasuun will maintain the extended lunch and recess schedule but she hopes that including teachers in the scheduling process will encourage more staff buy-in. 

Read more: Over 5,000 people have signed a petition, asking for longer lunch and recess in Anchorage elementary schools

Kasuun Kindergarten teacher Kim Weimann said implementing the pilot has been “a bit of a nightmare,” mostly due to a lack of noon duties.

She also said, at the kindergarten level, she hasn’t noticed much of a difference in her students since the schedule change. 

“They need more frequent breaks,” she said. “I think putting it all in one spot is kind of hard for kids [but] I haven’t seen a change. I talked to other teachers, they don’t really see a change in the extra time.”

Kindergarten and 1st grade students at Kasuun Elementary in Anchorage head outside for recess on March 2, 2020. This year students have an extra 10 minutes to play outside as part of the district’s wellness initiative. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

But, moving forward there will likely be more flexibility in terms of implementing the extra lunch and recess time, according to researcher Juliana Cohen. Cohen is an assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and assistant professor at Merrimack College. She volunteered her time to help conduct research on the pilot program.   

“One of the key things that I learned, that probably won’t come as a surprise to many people in Anchorage, is that it is such a diverse district,” she said. “If this pilot is going to be expanded, it’s probably not a one size fits all type of initiative, but that different types of methods are going to be likely needed for this to be successfully implemented, both inside of schools and between schools.”

Cohen, who studies school based interventions around student nutrition and health, collected and analyzed 5,107 student surveys, and also conducted interviews with parents and school staff including cafeteria workers. She said this pilot could have national implications.

“One of the things that’s so exciting about what Anchorage is doing is that this is one of the first schools in the nation to pilot test and evaluate these longer lunch periods and movement breaks throughout the day,” she said. “So what Anchorage is doing can really be a model for districts throughout the nation.” 

Cohen said she looks forward to continuing to research the program including looking at its impact on student behavior, hunger levels, and even sleep patterns. 

District administrators reported 63% of principals interviewed would continue the pilot at their school next school year, 16% would not and 16% were undecided.

Following the presentation and discussion with the school board, the district can decide whether or not to maintain the program on a voluntary basis, change district policy to reflect the schedule change, or end the program.

Read the complete presentation on the pilot program evaluation here.

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