More on Cafeterias and School Culture

I seem to have struck a nerve with my last post about the school cafeteria director who bristled when I mentioned the stories of cafeteria workers throwing out food because children's accounts hadn't been paid.

I'd like to share two of the reactions I received. Each one illustrates something important about school culture.

The first is from Barbara Adderley, former principal of M. Hall Stanton Elementary in North Philadelphia, which I wrote about in It's Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. When she arrived at Stanton it was one of the lowest performing schools in Philadelphia, and when she left seven years later its achievement data looked like a regular middle-class school in Pennsylvania. The school was anything but middle-class, however. Its neighborhood was one of urban desolation and poverty, and many of the students lived very tough lives.

By the time I saw and wrote about Stanton, it was a calm, well-organized and pleasant school, but that wasn't what Adderley had walked into in 2001. Back then, teachers told me, there had been the "third- and fourth-grade gang wars," and their students would beg to stay in their classes for lunch because eating with their schoolmates was so dangerous.

Adderley wrote, about last week's column:

I am so glad to see this!! I was horrified, as most people were, I'm sure, about [stories of cafeteria workers] tossing food in the trash. You would be surprised how many times it happens. It happened at Stanton when I went down and the aides were so busy trying to clean up to get the second group in that they were tossing children's lunch in the big roll away trash cans. I went ballistic!!!

Another time [in a different school] two kids were asking for seconds and the lead cafeteria worker said no. She actually told me no.

I went behind the serving table, took lunches, and passed them out.

That is a small example of the sensibility Adderley brought to transforming Stanton from an out-of-control nightmare into a calm, well-organized school. She made the respect of children and their needs the central, guiding principle of the school. And sometimes -- particularly in the beginning of her tenure -- she had to demonstrate it personally by short-circuiting disrespect in the lunchroom.

It can be all too easy for people who work in schools to inadvertently fall into disrespect of kids. Honestly, the collective needs of kids can sometimes feel overwhelming. But that doesn't make it any less destructive.

The second reaction I want to share comes from someone who has been around schools and school research for a long time -- Joseph Hawkins, senior study director at Westat, a statistical research company. Hawkins' comments are another reminder that school culture is something found throughout the building.

I do not do it any longer, but there was a time when I did site visits for the U.S. Department of Education's Blue Ribbon program. I was visiting the schools that made the final cut. The site visit recommendation decided getting the ribbon or not.

When I visited these schools, I always deviated from the schedule. You'd arrive and the principal would have a schedule all set and I'd immediately alter the thing.

One thing I noticed was no one ever seemed to want you to chat with any of the non-teaching staff, people in the lunch room, building services workers, office staff. I would put them on my schedule. I remember one janitor in Michigan going on and on about how he really liked the kids. And so I'm watching lunch one day. Kids finished eating, but I noticed that the cafeteria was really clean. I know you've been to schools where after lunch it looks like a bomb went off in the lunchroom. Not this school. There was some trash, but for the most part the place was clean.

The janitor was picking up a few things, and I asked, "Is this common?" He said yes and pointed out that the kids in this building really respect the school and everything about it and added that it made his job easier. This kind of student behavior ran through my visit and sure enough the school got its ribbon.

Both these stories reflect the idea that kids respond to how they are treated. School leaders play an enormous role in establishing a culture and climate of respect, as Barbara Adderley did at Stanton, but every adult in the building is part of establishing and maintaining that culture. And kids reflect the adult culture.