Calvert, Md., high school turns students loose at lunch

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

It's lunchtime at Patuxent High School in Southern Maryland, but it looks and sounds more like recess.

Students lounge in hallways and classrooms with sack lunches and trays of food. They play Frisbee, get dating advice from teachers, hold club meetings, cram for afternoon quizzes, play video games or catch up on sleep.

Two years ago, Patuxent Principal Nancy Highsmith released students from the confines of the cafeteria and replaced the multiple 30-minute lunch periods with one hour-long, schoolwide lunch. With some creative scheduling class time has remained the same, she said, and the middle-of-the-day burst of freedom has increased club participation, taught time management skills and given stressed-out students time to chill.

But there's an ulterior motive: raising test scores, grades and graduation rates.

Previously, students needing extra help had to arrive early in the morning or stay after school. Often, that meant they didn't get the help they needed, Highsmith said.

Now teachers use the first or second half of the hour-long lunch break to stage interventions. They teach, tutor and mentor students who receive low scores on national or state standardized tests, fail classes required for graduation or would simply benefit from individual attention.

"There are no excuses now. They can't say they didn't have time," Highsmith said.

It's too early to say whether the extra time will manifest itself in higher test scores and achievement, Highsmith said. But based on anecdotal evidence, she said it's a "huge success." This fall, Calvert County extended the pilot program to its three other high schools.

The idea came from James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, where Principal Carole Goodman has become known as the "Lunch Lady" for an article she wrote for an education magazine in 2006 about her school's 50-minute lunch period. For more than eight years, Blake students have been allowed to eat anywhere, meet with clubs, catch up on work, retake tests and even skateboard in the parking lot.

"I always warn freshmen parents: It looks like complete chaos to someone who doesn't know better," said Goodman, who has been the principal at Blake since in opened in 1998. "It's loud. It's noisy. It's messy. But that's what teenagers are."

Less tension, fewer fights

Goodman sees fewer lunchroom fights now, she said, because students are not forced to stay in the tension-filled lunchroom. Some students would rather hang out with a teacher they trust than face the social "craziness of the cafeteria," she said. "You can learn a tremendous amount at lunchtime. You learn the culture of your school," she said.

About half of Montgomery high schools have a similar lunch setup, Goodman said.

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