Late last spring, our principal announced to the staff that we were going to offer a free field trip to every student in our school. She told teachers to plan a one-day, curriculum-related field trip, anywhere we wanted. For once, we didn’t have to worry about the price of the bus or admission. Teachers could hardly believe it. Our classes planned trips to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Zoo, places that we normally would be reluctant to ask families to pay for, since many live with serious financial challenges.
So it was a surprise for us when one student would not return his permission form. After repeated reminders didn’t help, a staff member spoke to him privately. “You know this field trip is free,” she coaxed, “so why won’t you bring in your form?” The student didn’t mince words: “But what will I eat that day?”
For many students who rely on a school’s breakfast and lunch programs, a trip away from school isn’t exciting – it can be stressful. At Andrew Hunter Elementary School in Barrie’s north end, we know that many of our families live with this kind of stress every day. Still, this realization about the role of the free lunch program was eye-opening and this moment encouraged us to think even more broadly.
Learning to make systemic change – The Beginning
While Andrew Hunter teachers had always found ways to help our students and families out with acts of kindness – a teacher might discreetly buy a grade eight 8 girl a grad dress, bring an extra lunch for a hungry child, or stockpile mittens to give out as needed – it became obvious that broader systemic changes were needed.
In November 2011, a small group of our staff attended a professional development session on poverty and education at ETFO. Led by executive staff member Jim Giles, it was an opportunity to talk to staff from schools with similar challenges, and to discuss strategies and seek solutions together. Many teachers talked about providing lunches, or buying students clothes and school supplies with their own money. While commendable, these activities were also proving exhausting, and expensive, and more importantly they were not sustainable. If you are feeding a student lunch every day, what happens when that student changes classes, or you change schools?
Giles urged us to make systemic change instead of relying on stopgap solutions, and to build a sense of community with our school families. While the task seemed daunting, ultimately we realized that if we were looking for long-term, sustainable change, this is what we would have to do. We wanted to make the school a more welcoming place for students and their families, to