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

In Fairfax County, Marshall High School switched to an hour-long lunch about seven years ago to cut down on the number of students and teachers staying after school. "Kids are tired at the end of the day. Teachers are tired at the end of the day," Principal Jay Pearson said. "They want to go home."

Henry E. Lackey High School in Charles County began an hour-long lunch this fall to cut down on the time teachers and vice principals spent supervising the lunchroom.

"We started at about 10:10 and went until 1:30. It drove me crazy. We spent over a third of our day -- almost half our day -- supervising lunch," said Principal James Short, who used to work in Montgomery County.

Retaking a class

During lunch at Patuxent High last week, senior Tameka Nolan and government teacher Jack Norton discussed questions on worksheets: What is urban sprawl? Should this fantasy town build a shopping mall?

Three days a week, the two meet so Nolan can retake a government class that is required for graduation. Lunch is the only time Nolan, 17, can schedule the session. When school lets out, she has to care for her 2-year-old son, Machi.

"I just need to graduate," she said, an iPod bud in one ear. Having a working lunch several days a week "is not taking away from anything. I can do it."

'We get more freedom'

Just across the hall, basketballs bounced, flew and swished as members of the varsity basketball team and their friends shot free throws. A group of girls sat on the bleachers and watched, eating chicken sandwiches and laughing. Other players sat and talked with a teacher.

The old lunch system "was just like class: you were stuck," said Florencio "Cito" Alhambra, 18. "We get more freedom. We get to do more stuff."

Of course, some students do not seek the help they need, Highsmith said. There are some who never attend club meetings, who don't see the hour as an opportunity to flex their time-management skills, who sneak into off-limits hallways to make out, who are part of a clique of "chronic walkers" and circle the hallways with their friends.

"Sometimes they need a break," Highsmith said. "They have some downtime. They can decompress."

Teachers take turns supervising the hallways, and vice principals patrol with walkie-talkies, looking for troublemakers, lip-lockers, fighters, pranksters or other potential problems.

Just after 12:30 the warning bell rang. Students wandered toward their lockers and then wandered toward their fifth-period classes.

"Three more minutes!" Highsmith shouted at a group sauntering a little too slowly. "iPod! iPod! iPod!" she said to a boy who still has the buds -- banned outside lunch -- in his ears.

There was another bell. Classroom doors shut. Janitors started their sweep of the halls.

"It's done," Highsmith said with a sigh in a quiet hallway. "And now we're back to normal."

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