Celebrating SW Va. principals’ leadership against childhood hunger

By Dr. Stephen R. Staples, The Bristol Herald

We have occasions throughout the academic calendar to recognize some of Virginia’s finest teachers, the men and women whose dedication to our children’s education is making a tangible impact on their growth and success. Far less often do we have an opportunity to celebrate the behind-the-scenes leadership that helps to make great teaching possible, and so in recognition of National Principals Month, let’s put a well-earned spotlight on Virginia’s 1,855 school principals.

I look back on my years as the principal of Hopewell High School with great fondness as I had the chance to help create an environment that was conducive to learning and address head on the challenges that our students were facing. Among those challenges today is the issue of childhood hunger. Across the commonwealth, more than 300,000 children live in households that struggle with getting enough to eat. The problem is especially acute in Southwest Virginia where more than one in six children must rely on the meals they receive at school for many of their nutritional needs.

Teachers and principals are well aware of the challenges, and they see firsthand the impact that not getting enough to eat has on their students. They know that children who are hungry have issues with concentration, discipline and learning in general, both during the school day and with their homework. Hungry students also are more prone to be sicker and absent. Teachers often do what they can to help, and on average, teachers spend about $300 of their own money each year buying food for their students.

Some of the commonwealth’s best principals are working to ensure that all students are getting enough to eat by making state and federal programs available to them. While school lunch programs have been a mainstay at schools for many years, a more recent focus is helping students start their days with a healthy breakfast. Principals today are finding new, more efficient ways to make sure kids from low-income families are able to get the food they need. Programs that shift the time breakfast is served, making it a part of the regular school day, fill a critical gap in meeting students’ nutritional needs.

Throughout Southwest Virginia, principals are helping lead the way with a dedication and fervor that is exemplary. In Dickenson County, John Whitner, principal at Ridgeview Middle School, has championed the Grab and Go Breakfast program, where students can pick up conveniently packaged breakfasts from mobile service carts and bring these easy-to-eat items to the classroom. He piloted the initiative with two 6th grade classes at first. He was so committed to its success that it soon spread to the entire 6th grade and later the whole school. Suffice it to say that Principal Whitner is using the program to its utmost benefit.

Pam Davis, principal at Highland View Elementary in Bristol, also has been a pioneer on the school breakfast front, becoming the first principal to allow new, alternative ways of serving breakfast in the district. Prior to implementing the programs, Principal Davis knew that many of her students arriving for school Monday morning had not eaten a real meal since the one the school served the previous Friday. Today, she goes to great lengths to see that every student at Highland View eats three meals a day. As she says, “we all know how difficult it is for a child to be hungry for knowledge when he or she is also physically hungry for food and emotionally hungry for attention.” But she adds, “You get them here. You love them up. You feed them … We make them whole people.”

High school students, of course, are not immune, and at Pulaski County High School, Principal Michael Grim has been designated a “breakfast champion” for his dogged commitment to implement better ways to serve breakfast at the school. He overcame concerns about food in the classroom and the need for schedule changes, not to mention some resistance from some reluctant faculty. But the nutritional needs of his students became a priority, and he became an advocate for change, working with his administrative team to make the Second Chance Breakfast program part of the morning school routine, allowing students to eat breakfast during a break in the morning after their first period.

How critical are these programs? Consider the story that Roanoke Superintendent Rita Bishop tells: “I was working really late in my office, and our schools had been closed for four days for snow. My phone rang and this little voice said, ‘Lady, are you going to open school tomorrow?’ I said, ‘I really don’t know, we’ll make the call in the morning; it will be on television.’ He said, ‘Please open. I’m so hungry.’”

And according to a Virginia Department of Education report on alternative school breakfast models, principals love this program. 96 percent of Virginia principals surveyed support serving breakfast in one of these alternative ways, and 90 percent are likely to recommend these methods to other schools.

The principals in Southwest Virginia — as with principals across the commonwealth — provide the impetus for school meal programs that by all accounts are making gigantic strides in not only ensuring the health of thousands of students but also in helping give them a more stable foundation on which to learn and grow. Fittingly, as part of National Principals Month, I congratulate those principals for their leadership and commitment in helping give so many of Virginia’s students opportunities to reach their full potential.

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