No More Nuggets

As the Kenton County School District opened its doors in August for the new school year, Kim Banta was braced for a battle.

Banta, the assistant superintendent for human resources and community engagement, took on new role over the summer: overseeing the lunch choices offered to students.

Her first move was to choose healthier meals for the district’s nearly 14,000 students, eliminating fattening foods and sugary drinks. Gone are the French fries, processed chicken nuggets, fried fish sticks and, creating the biggest outcry, ever-popular chocolate milk.

In their place, school menus now feature all-white meat chicken tenders, baked fish and vegetarian fare. Instead of fries, students eat corn on the cob, roasted cauliflower and zucchini, butternut squash and kale chips. Dessert is fresh fruit, and chocolate milk has given way to skim or one percent white milk and juice drinks.

Step One: Ban Soda

“Sometimes parents don’t have a lot of time at night between the sporting events and extracurricular activities to go healthy at home. There’s just not enough time,” says Banta. “I want our lunches to be healthy so at least parents know that their child had one good, healthy meal during the day, and they don’t have to feel guilty about stopping at Burger King at night.”

The district began working to change its menus in July, when Banta took on her new post. A former principal at Dixie Heights High School, she’s been concerned about students’ diets for a long time, stirring controversy a decade ago when she banned soda machines from the school’s campus.

“I said at the time, ‘We’re not saying you can’t drink soda or you shouldn’t, we’re just not going to be the ones selling it to you,” she says.

Over the summer, she worked with a childhood obesity consultant from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, looking at the nutritional content of the district’s lunches. The result was a move away from mass-produced processed food that has become a staple in many schools.

Move to Whole Foods

“We decided to move away from those and go with whole foods. Chicken tenders instead of the chicken nuggets, deli-quality meats instead of pressed meats. We won’t buy processed chili, we’ll make the chili ourselves with good ingredients,” Banta says.

“There are all sorts of things you can do that are easy and are better for the kids. You’re just going to spend a little more money.”

The difference in price is almost negligible compared to the benefits, she adds. Several studies have pointed to a correlation between healthy diets and school performance.

“Don’t Drown It”

Prior to the start of school, the district hosted local chef and nationally renowned dietitian Cyndie Story, who worked with kitchen staffs to tout the benefits of the changes.

Banta shared preparation tips with the workers as they move from a cafeteria mindset to something more modern, “trying to get cafeterias to cook more like kitchens.”

“As a culture, we’ve forgotten that food has taste,” adds Banta. “Vegetables have a taste. You don’t have to drown it in dressing. I think there are some kids who don’t know this, but once they try the new menu, they’re going to discover some things that they not only really like, but are much better for them.”

Although cafeteria staff members who worked with Story were enthusiastic, Banta says public comment was less so when the district announced the changes.

Oddly, it was the elimination of chocolate milk that drew the greatest outcry, even from parents. Banta’s twin sons, who are high school seniors in the district, also balked at first.

But now that the kids have gotten a chance to sample the new menu, it’s catching on. Other districts have also been asking how to implement the changes in their schools, says Banta.

“It all goes back to teaching kids what’s healthy and what’s natural,” she says. “It’s about lifelong living choices.”

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Beyond the Right Answer

Schools throughout the commonwealth — not to mention the country— have their eyes on the Kenton County School District.

The district is serving as the lead proponent of new classroom initiatives to help students meet the challenges of an ever-increasing technical world.

Named one of a dozen districts in the state that is implementing literacy and mathematical design collaborative programs, Kenton County was also named the leader for both efforts.

“It’s an honor,” says Barb Martin, the district’s deputy superintendent. “We’ve been invested in the collaborative for a long time. Four years ago, we went to a meeting in New York to discuss MDC (Math Design Collaborative) and were excited by the concept. So, we hired a math expert for the district to help us implement it. The following year, we went to an LDC (Literacy Design Collaborative) meeting in Los Angeles and started to implement its concepts into our schools, too.”

Involve the Student

Through the programs, teachers and schools work together to design a modern classroom model that veers away from rote learning of the past and toward greater student involvement. Specially designed lesson plans and activities encourage a greater understanding of topics through classroom discussions of concepts and debates. Students are also expected to write in-depth reports.

The goal is to not only know the correct answer to a question but to gain depth of knowledge.

“It’s no longer just about the final answer. That’s the big difference,” says Martin.

The programs are funded through a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to Kentucky schools announced in February 2011. Last fall, Kenton County received an additional $600,000 from the foundation to continue its work over three years, marking its status as a national leader in the effort. The announcement also came with a visit from foundation CEO Jeff Raikes.

He left impressed, says Martin.

Within the district, Jenny Barrett is charged with leading the change in math curriculum. Hired after that New York meeting four years ago, she has guided implementation of the Math Design Collaborative, working with both teachers and students. The difference in the students has been striking, she says.

“One of the major components of MDC is communication. It’s designed in a way so students are encouraged to talk about concepts and ask questions,” Barrett explains. “Because of that, they’re able to notice patterns and make connections to other mathematical fields as well as real-life models for the concepts they are learning. They’re not only arriving at the right answer; they understand why they are. It’s building conceptual development.”

“There are a lot of students who weren’t comfortable with math who are seeing a lot of success, now,” she says.

Gary McCormick, who attended the Literacy Design Collaborative meeting in Los Angeles with Barrett, took on the task of installing it in the district’s classrooms. Unlike the math component, which is specific to one area, LDC spans multiple disciplines – English as well as social studies and sciences – using the same tools.

“Before, a teacher would stand up and deliver a lecture, and students would just recite the answers back when the time came,” McCormick says.

KEY TO SUCCESS

“That might have been an awesome lecture then, but now when they’re talking about the UN (United Nations) charter, for instance, the students have a deeper understanding and can relate it to their own experiences.”

Martin, Barrett and McCormick say that the key to Kenton County’s success is the teachers. Quick to adopt the new curriculum, they have also been invited to speak throughout the country, spreading the word of the collaboratives’ successes.

It’s the fruition of the district’s pitch to the Gates Foundation four years ago.

“We persuaded them that we were a great district with superstar students and superstar teachers, and we would make it work,” says Martin. “Without Jenny and Gary and the teachers, we wouldn’t be where we are.”