At Pacific Elementary School, lunches are cooked from scratch daily with local produce and pasture-raised chicken donated by a nearby farm. Meals combine old favorites — tacos and homemade pizza — with the exotic: Filipino chicken adobo, Brazilian pumpkin stew, latkes for Hanukkah and Nigerian jollof rice for Kwanzaa.
It’s no wonder that families from nearby Santa Cruz fill up many of the seats in the seaside town of Davenport’s only public school, intrigued by the food and the school’s renowned chefs: their own 10- and 11-year-old children.
For more than three decades, sons and daughters of farmworkers and farm owners, along with out-of-town kids, have taken turns making lunch for each other, their teachers and staff. Doing so defines the school as well as sustains it financially.
If fact, if not for Food Lab, as the meals program is called, there’d be no school. Davenport, population 368, is too small to populate a pre-K-to-sixth-grade school. About two-thirds of the students are interdistrict transfers, mainly from Santa Cruz and the mountain town of Bonny Doon.
“Having that sense of service to the other students in the school is important to me but also the skills that she learns in the kitchen,” said Doña Bumgarner of Santa Cruz, explaining why she enrolled her daughter, Stella, in Pacific Elementary.
Several fifth and sixth grade students rotate for a three-hour shift one day each week in the kitchen, Stella among them. The bustle begins at 9 a.m. in a compact kitchen, wide enough for two students to pass without bumping — as long as they look around and shout, “Opening oven!”
On the menu this day was pozole, a traditional Mexican pork soup, garnished with fresh cilantro. It was served with quesadillas, a salad and beans. Chefs Logan Franks, Moses O’Riordan and Shyon Johnson sliced vegetables, used food processors and cooked chicken while baking pumpkin bread for the next day’s breakfast.
They work with sharp knives under the watchful eye of Emelia Miguel, who chose the school for her daughter 14 years ago because of Food Lab and has directed it for the last eight years.
“The first few weeks, we just really focus on safety in the kitchen,” she said. “We try not to use a lot of equipment to chop and dice and slice. So we teach them how to use knives.”
Mishaps happen. The worst accident so far was when Miguel cut her finger, requiring stitches. A student mistook salt for sugar, spoiling a dish. “There is always a Plan B and a Plan C,” Miguel said. One time, the power went out in the kitchen, and (the principal) put out a call to parents. Grills from home soon appeared, and lunch was served in the parking lot.
Each year, Miguel sees students’ confidence build. “It’s a huge, huge task to produce all this food for 140 people, keep them safe, and we trust them to do that. They’re so empowered and feel good about themselves that they can do these things.”
“This is not superficial work. It’s meaningful, important, and they have to succeed. Otherwise, we don’t eat,” said Eric Gross, who is the one-school Pacific Elementary School District’s combination superintendent/principal.
One minute Miguel is suggesting to Shyon what he can do when the batter clogs a mixer; the next, she is reviewing with Logan how he calculated the ingredients for the pozole.
“I like how fresh the food is,” Logan said. “Not some packaged food with preservatives in it. I like working with the food. I also like skipping math.”
Miguel overhears him. “Well, you’re doing math here, right? You’re not skipping school, Logan.”
The teachers plan for students’ absences from class and see that they make up for the time they spend in Food Lab, Gross said.
Miguel welcomes students’ ideas. Sixth-grader Quinn Schromm’s suggestion that November be an international food month resulted in Greek food on Mondays (spanakopita and baked orzo), Brazilian Tuesdays (feijoada, which is black bean and pork stew), Moroccan Wednesdays (pumpkin tagine), Indian Thursdays (tandoori chicken tikka on Diwali, the festival of lights) and Polish Fridays (pierogis, which are stuffed dumplings, and golumpki, which are boiled, stuffed cabbage rolls).
“We exposed kids and myself to so many different things that I’d never cooked before. That was really fun. It was a great, great challenge,” Miguel said.
And also a challenge for picky eaters and kids who eat a lot of junk food. For them, “Emelia’s Rule” applies: “I ask, ‘How old are you?’ ‘I’m 5.’ ‘Well you have to take five bites of your food before you get up.’ And it generally works for students 5 to 11,” Miguel said.
“Generally, if we can start them in preschool and get them all the way through sixth grade, they are so less picky,” Miguel said. “I have a lot of parents who come and tell me, ‘I’m so thankful my child is eating their salad at home.’”
“Miss Emelia and the fifth and sixth graders are very clever in trying to figure out how not to disguise things, but to prepare them in such a way that they’re more kid-friendly,” Gross said.
Students don’t stand in line for food. To reinforce that lunches are special, the student chefs and Jerry Adame, a 27-year employee of the school, bring meals to lunchroom tables; students dine with silverware on plates. While students gulp down their meals before recess in many schools, at Pacific Elementary, kids eat after recess, tired and hungry, and have a longer time to eat than in many schools.
Miguel, an evangelist for student-centered programs, believes other schools can create their own versions of Food Lab. “It’s absolutely possible,” she said.
But Bumgarner and Gross said it would be hard to duplicate one big ingredient: Miguel. Bumgarner, who works in the school library with an insider’s view of the kitchen, said, “I know from having my own child in my own kitchen, it’s really hard to keep kids on task. Emelia gets plated meals on tables day after day with excellent food. That’s really mind-boggling to me.”
“Not a lot of people are suited for the job, who can design a menu, order, cook and supervise kids with knives, flames and boiling water,” Gross said. “Most cooks just want to cook.”
Then there are other factors: Many schools lack kitchens because, for decades, the state encouraged central kitchens in a district with meals delivered to outlying schools.
And there’s the added expense. Quality meals cost more, Gross said. Pacific Elementary is not a wealthy district; it receives less-than-average state funding per student. Pre-Covid, the district’s general fund annually subsidized Food Lab’s cost by $20,000 to $30,000 — $1 to $2 per meal. Since the start of the pandemic, the federal government has funded breakfast and lunch for all students, and soon the state will subsidize meals for all students, and Food Lab should nearly break even, Gross said.
Food Lab embodies the school’s spirit. “Most students consider it an honor to be part of Food Lab,” Gross said. “They take pride in saying, ‘I made lunch today.’”
“We do a lot of things differently as a school, and we attract people who think differently or want a different experience,” he said.
College admissions have always seemed opaque and confusing to students and families. But the coronavirus pandemic only further complicated the issue, especially after many California colleges and universities stopped accepting the SAT or ACT for admission last year as social distancing prevented students from sitting for standardized tests.
Now, students may wonder what has become the most important aspect of the application process: essays, extracurricular activities, grades or their backgrounds?
“It’s not about what is more important,” among these criteria, said Emily Engelschall, interim associate vice chancellor of enrollment services at the University of California Riverside. Engelschall was one of the panelists invited to help clear up the fog on the admissions process during a roundtable hosted by EdSource on Wednesday. “It’s really about what the student is telling us” on their applications about their lives.
Grades are looked at “a little bit more closely” now that standardized tests aren’t part of the evaluation. But across the nine undergraduate UC campuses, admissions officers use 12 other factors like special talents, location and the number of and performance in honors or dual enrollment courses to help determine admission, Engelschall said.
In the 23-campus California State University system, each institution has its own admissions model. But at Cal Poly Pomona, “it’s really about looking at the full student,” said Brandon Tuck, director of admissions for the campus, one of the panelists.
“We have a lot of history on the student and how they’ve progressed academically through their high school career,” he said, referring to the information students provide on their applications. Grades are still very important, but each institution should be examining students that fit the profile of their institution. For example, the Pomona campus is a polytechnic university, which means performance in science, technology, engineering and math classes will carry more weight with admissions officers there, Tuck said.
After the elimination of standardized tests, more students appear to be applying to colleges than before, as many feel they have a more equitable chance at admission. But there’s still too much secrecy around the process, students say.
Jessica Ramos, a UC Berkeley freshman studying psychology, said she applied to about 30 colleges and universities last year.
“As students, we see it as luck,” said Ramos, who was also a panelist. “Admissions is like this secret, like the new show that just came out, ‘Squid Games.’ … We kind of get put into this system where whoever gets chosen, gets chosen. We don’t really know anything about what’s behind the scenes. So there never has been trust with admissions. It’s just this type of luck game.”
When navigating admissions today, one big question students are contemplating is how to use “pass” or “no pass” options on their transcripts. Thanks to Assembly Bill 104 California high school students can change their letter grades for courses taken in 2020-21 to a “pass” or “no pass” without lowering their GPA. The change doesn’t affect their financial aid or admission to CSU or UC.
“There is a large concern about the number of ‘pass’ and ‘no pass’ grades that are showing on an application,” Engelschall said. “That’s another data point that we’re not seeing on a student.”
Josh Godinez, a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona and president of the California Association of School Counselors, advises students to apply to eight to 12 colleges with a mixture of CSU, UC and private institutions.
“So that [then] we just see what happens,” he said, adding that he also encourages students to apply to a community college and get their financial aid applications in. “Because you never know … and at least that gives them a Plan B to consider.”
Admissions officers are also well aware of the changes or accommodations students have had to make because of the pandemic. So it’s good for students to let admissions offices know if they weren’t able to participate in an activity or take a dual enrollment class because those opportunities were cut off for them, Godinez said.
“Make sure if you, or your child, was one of those students that had some sort of obstacle to take something that would have otherwise been taken in a normal year, that that information is shared as part of that (Covid-19 pandemic) experience,” he said.
For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.
State and federal investments in transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds — if done right — has the potential to transform education for all of California’s young learners, panelists said Thursday at EdSource’s roundtable on the topic.
“My hope is that this federal money will be a booster for us in California that will allow us to think big time, think long term,” said panelist Vickie Ramos Harris, director of educational equity for Advancement Project California. “It can help us stay on track for what we need to do for our babies and our early childhood workforce.”
“Universal Transitional Kindergarten: What Parents Need to Know,” a virtual roundtable webinar hosted by EdSource, covered topics such as early childhood brain development, equity and social justice, the teacher shortage, ideal teacher-student ratios and the pandemic’s impact on transitional kindergarten classrooms.
Panelists included policymakers, a TK teacher, advocates and academic researchers.
Transitional kindergarten has been a part of California schools for years. It was originally designed for 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 as a steppingstone between preschool and kindergarten. But amid calls for expanded preschool and other programs to benefit young children, California set aside $2.7 billion in its 2021-22 budget to expand the program to all 4-year-olds, not just those with fall birthdays.
The Biden administration has also prioritized early childhood programs and included money in the current spending bill to fund transitional kindergarten, preschool and other programs. The bill is awaiting a vote in Congress.
California’s plan, known as universal TK, will be phased in beginning in 2022 and is expected to include all of the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.
Universal TK is considered important because it could help narrow the academic achievement gap between children whose families can afford high-quality preschool and those whose can’t, panelists said. Children who fall behind academically in the early years often have difficulty catching up and sometimes face long-term challenges as a result.
“There’s a real opportunity here,” said Samantha Tran, managing director for education policy at Children Now. “Not only does California have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, but those gaps begin before children even walk through the door of kindergarten. That’s why this is so important.”
Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, noted that transitional kindergarten can benefit children’s brain development, but the program must be high-quality and led by trained teachers.
Finding enough trained teachers as well as teaching assistants for the TK expansion will be a challenge, she said. California is already experiencing a dire teacher shortage.
“The biggest concern, right now, is staffing,” she said. “We need to think more broadly about the issue of how we recruit and train the people who will take care of our youngest children.”
California will need an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers and 16,000 new teaching assistants as transitional kindergarten expands, Tran said.
Teaching assistants and a low teacher-to-student ratio will be key to making TK a success, said Paula Merrigan, a TK teacher in Castro Valley Unified. She said she occasionally has 26 children in a classroom, and even a part-time assistant makes a world of difference. It allows her to focus on children’s individual needs, such as motor skills, counting, learning to write their names or to help them navigate social and emotional difficulties, without the pressure of kindergarten standards.
Ultimately, that’s what TK should be about, Merrigan said.
“TK is geared more toward preschool. It’s a bridge between the two. In TK, students learn by playing, by doing, by exploration,” she said. “We call it the gift of time.”
Panelists were hopeful about the state and federal commitment to young children but acknowledged the hurdles ahead. Staffing shortages, in particular, will be a significant barrier to a smooth rollout of transitional kindergarten in all California schools.
“I am thrilled the Biden administration is prioritizing this,” Tran said. “But that doesn’t get California off the hook. We have a responsibility to map a path forward.”
For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.
Lodi Unified, in many ways a microcosm for the state as a whole, received more than $131 million in state and federal Covid relief funds, roughly a third of its overall budget pre-pandemic.
American Rescue Plan Act funding imposes few restrictions, although addressing lost learning and underserved students must be priorities.