Unhealthy School Acts

A few weeks ago, on November 16, the education committee of our city council held a hearing on amendments to the Healthy Schools Act; school food; and proposed legislation to provide free lunches for all DC students.

Not surprisingly, such a wide-ranging hearing encompassed equally wide-ranging testimony, including apparent socioeconomic bias in the distribution of healthy school breakfasts and allegations of vermin contamination in a school cafeteria.

The first incredible point came from DCPS parent and social scientist Ivy Ken (start at the hearing video 1:32:56), who noticed that DCPS had changed its breakfast menu at some schools, to avoid food heavy in sugar and to give students freshly made (and thus healthier) breakfasts. When Ken charted which schools were receiving the new and healthier food, she discovered that it tracked almost entirely along socioeconomic and racial lines: The majority of Title I elementaries were not getting the healthier breakfasts, while all DCPS elementaries in Ward 3, the most affluent, were. (See Ken’s testimony here and her draft report, which she presented as part of the council record, here.)

Ken also noted that she endeavored to discover the cost of the new meals, as she had been told they were significantly more expensive than the unhealthy ones, but had been prevented from getting that information due to ongoing litigation associated with the bid protest of Sodexo’s contract. (Funnily enough, the reason given for why Ken’s FOIA request on the cost was denied was that the information was deemed “of a personal nature.” Because the amount of money DC taxpayers are subsidizing DCPS breakfasts is quite personal, apparently.)

Then, at 2:56:05, DC grandmother Allah Musawwir testified. She showed the council photos that she said she took in the first week of school, in the cafeteria of DCPS’s Langley Elementary, where she had been employed. The pictures show roaches, a dead mouse, flies on fresh food (bananas, rolls, and veggie burgers), as well as apparent mold on food transport bags. In the background of one of the food photos, children are seated at cafeteria tables, eating and dressed in what appear to be Langley’s school uniforms.

Musawwir also testified about how some of the food was not even appropriate for the school’s youngest children, noting that some items came with food packets larger than the children’s hands, which they could not open, much less easily manipulate. A few of Musawwir’s pictures show peanut butter and jelly sandwiches half-assembled, requiring the children to spread the peanut butter and jelly themselves.

While Musawwir told of how she had been terminated for reporting all of this to her supervisors, she got up from the witness table to hand the pictures to council staff (2:56:47) in the hearing room. Indeed, after she finished testifying, at 3:20:20, she asked education committee chair, David Grosso, if he had the pictures. Grosso replied that he had them and would put them into the record.

But when I inquired with council staff about the pictures, I was told that they did not have them. Council staff then put me in contact with Ms. Musawwir, who sent the pictures to me and to the council electronically.

Even more incredible things happened after the public witnesses finished testifying:

For instance, at the hearing video 3:32:15, David Grosso asked DCPS chief operating officer Carla Watson if she had seen Ivy Ken’s report. Watson said she had not, but that she would look into it and report back.

Then, Grosso asked Watson (3:47:21) about Allah Musawwir’s report and photos. Watson noted that the city’s department of health inspects DCPS cafeterias once a year, but that the DCPS office of food and nutrition services also does inspections “on a constant basis.”

After Watson explained that the vendor itself has “checks and balances,” Grosso softly noted (3:48:17), “I can’t imagine what happened at Langley, that it looked like that.”

Watson responded that “that information that you were seeing was not what was presented when students were there.” She noted that the chancellor had received the pictures, DCPS completed an investigation, and that they had surmised that the incidents in question happened during the summer, not when students were there.

The pictures, Watson concluded, were “not current, accurate information.”

[Confidential to DCPS: does this mean that there IS an appropriate time to have vermin and insects in school cafeterias?]


Picture: Fly on veggie burger. Copyright 2017 Allah Musawwir

In truth, there is plenty more associated with that healthy schools hearing that seems quite unhealthy–albeit in a much quieter way.

That is:

Providing free lunches for all students in DC is laudable, given DC’s huge food insecurity, and rather self-explanatory but for its actual cost. At the hearing, education committee chair David Grosso noted that enacting the proposed free lunch legislation would cost $2.5 million in the first year alone, with costs set to grow subsequently. (More on those costs later.)

Moreover, the legislation to amend the Healthy Schools Act would do a variety of seemingly healthy things, including (NB: most of the wording here is not mine, but that of the legislation)

–subsidizing schools that implement breakfast in classrooms; encouraging schools to use Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP); requiring certain schools to permit breakfast after the bell; and establishing physical education and physical activity goals for different age groups;
–strengthening nutrition requirements and requiring vegetarian options;
–tasking the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) to permit use of alternative serving models to increase breakfast participation; provide professional development for school personnel to incorporate physical activity into the school day; deem schools ineligible for healthy schools funds grants when not in compliance with federal or local requirements; and develop recommendations on best practices for building and managing a central kitchen; and
–requiring the mayor to develop a central kitchen based on those OSSE recommendations.

That last item–a central kitchen–was proposed out of findings by the DC auditor that bringing food services back in house at DCPS would save money relative to the contracts DCPS has had with private food vendors.

Indeed, auditor Kathy Patterson testified at the hearing (see video starting at 2:10:20) that DCPS currently spends nearly $1 more to Sodexo, under its current contract, than it gets from federal government reimbursement on school lunches. Other schools districts, she testified, keep their costs much closer to the federal reimbursement.

Given the frequency with which superintendent of education and OSSE head Hanseul Kang later in the hearing cited concerns about costs for almost anything being proposed to make schools, their food, and/or their occupants healthier, I decided to find out what this approximately $1 cost differential meant.

While someone in the DCPS office of food and nutrition services told me that the exact number of lunches that DCPS serves through Sodexo is not readily available (um, really?), I was told that each school year DCPS serves 5 million lunches, with about 87% of them by Sodexo. So, dividing the 5 million lunches by 181 school days, I got about 27,000 lunches per school day served in DCPS–with about 24,000 of those (87%) served by way of the Sodexo contract.

All of this means that the extra money the city is paying per lunch in DCPS to Sodexo works out to roughly $24,000 per day. Absent the Sodexo contract or with a better rate in it, that money could instead pay for free lunches for all students in DC.

Depending (Or Not) On OSSE

Many of the proposed amendments to the Healthy Schools Act task our office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) with new burdens. Theoretically, this makes sense: OSSE is the natural place to oversee school requirements in both sectors and to ensure compliance with a wide variety of DC regulations regarding our public schools.

But reality is quite different.

In its school oversight role, the council often appears overwhelmed. This is not exactly surprising, given that it is functioning under mayoral control as much as a board of education as a legislative body. In her testimony, DCPS parent Ivy Ken reminded the council of this role, noting that they could act now about better food options for DCPS, and thus avoid rubberstamping the expensive Sodexo contract as they did in June–in a rush–to ensure DCPS kids got fed in the fall.

But despite OSSE’s vital role as a civic backstop on all matters relating to our schools, the agency does not seem to provide much assurance in that regard.

For instance, the Healthy Schools Act mandates an annual report from OSSE. This year’s report weighs in at a hefty 165 pages (well, that was where the numbering ended—the pages kept going, and I stopped counting).

However, the report’s substance is, um, rather thin.

For one, grants for farm field trips were lauded in multiple places in the report. Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s great that OSSE provided funds for kids to go on these field trips and see the farm to table pathway up close and personal.

But only 500 kids from 12 schools (an average of 42 kids per school) went on those field trips in the last school year–a tiny fraction of the totality of students in DC, and a small fraction at most DC public schools.

Then, starting on p. 26 of the report, we learn that most of our public schools are not in compliance whatsoever with the Healthy Schools Act minimum requirements for physical activity and health and physical education.

Not that this observation is exactly news, but there is no effort here to examine what could be done to make schools actually comply. This is especially egregious, given that we are in the better part of a decade since the act’s passage. If the agency charged with oversight on this matter is silent, what does that mean?

However, on p. 32 (and p. 91), we learn about 6 charter schools granted $100,000 each by OSSE simply to meet the Healthy Schools Acts requirements for these things.

This would seem to be an attempt by OSSE to address that silence about noncompliance–except that there is no explanation as to how these six schools were chosen; whether the effort was successful; and whether its replication is worthy of consideration. The only conclusion that one can make from OSSE’s silence is that this $600,000 outlay to a few charter schools was just a temporary windfall for their bottom lines.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of OSSE’s report is the distinct impression it gives of obfuscation.

For instance, the chart on p. 81 (as well as attachment 19) shows active school gardens as of school year 2016-17. But two that I happen to know have recently been, um, a little less than active: DCPS’s Sousa Middle School and Drew Elementary.

Here is a picture of the garden boxes at Drew, which I took on November 18, 2017:

And here is a picture of Sousa’s garden boxes, which I took on September 30. 2017:


Now, I get that this OSSE report is showing last school year’s activity. The problem is that this accounting overlooks entirely the fact that neither Sousa nor Drew started this school year with an active PTA and that both have an overwhelming majority of poor kids–just the demographic in DC most in need of healthy and secure food sources that a strong and continuous garden program could provide, but isn’t even being discussed here. It’s like someone just checked off a box and moved on, without any concern about next steps–which here are simply weeds.

And that’s not even getting into the very, very happy chart, Figure C, starting on p. 17. Here’s one page of it:


The entire chart shows OSSE’s assigned scores for a variety of items in school gardens, including design, instruction, and programming. Over the four years of scores shown, the chart shows mainly upward trends (see the arrows on the right), indicating that the items in question (i.e., student and teacher involvement, curriculum, composting, etc.) are all on the increase.

Except that they aren’t.

On the chart below, with the overall OSSE scores plotted out, take a look at where the linear trend lines over 5 years are actually headed (hint: it’s not going up):

Graph OSSE Trends

Recall that OSSE is the agency that refused to clarify that it combines test results of different tests into one number, such that schools taking more difficult PARCC tests are not clearly identified nor their scores clearly separated out, which results in distortions of what those scores really mean.

And then recall that those test scores form the basis of how our schools are judged–which also determines how they are chosen and thus even how they are funded.

And then recall that this same agency–with its apparently tenuous grasp of numbers, conclusions, and outcomes in just one mandated report–is in charge of creating our new school report cards, determining what information about our schools will be presented to the public and how.

It’s not just me worrying through OSSE’s actions:

In a recent email to constituents, council member Robert White demanded an independent entity–not OSSE–investigate the Ballou graduation scandal, because of “recent significant misreported data from OSSE and the overlapping roles of OSSE and DCPS.”

Sunshine: still one of the healthiest things for our public schools.

2 thoughts on “Unhealthy School Acts

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