"When I taught in Plano, Texas, I encountered a boy I considered to be my perfect student," said Kayla Brown. "Then one day, he completely transformed into a behavior issue. That continued for a while; his grades plummeted, and he didn't seem to care about anything anymore. I redirected, corrected, and disciplined until I was about to go crazy."
Then, as she passed by the lunchroom one day, Brown heard laughter from a table of children. She went in to investigate the commotion and discovered that the other students were laughing at her "perfect student." He was licking his plate to take in every morsel of food.
"I pulled the child aside and asked, 'Honey, what are you doing?'" Brown recalled. "He replied that he was hungry and his daddy was gone. This child was a kindergarten student, and children his age often do not understand or know what exactly is going on in their homes. They only recognize that there is a change, and that it is not a good one."
Brown contacted the child's mother and learned that her husband recently had left the family, and they had no money, food, or a vehicle. She visited the home and found the children starving. Her eyes were opened. She had been looking at the obvious -- the behavior of the child -- and not at the true source of the problem. That experience changed her outlook on every aspect of life, and prompted her to come to the aid of kids in need through a unique program she calls the "Backpack Buddy Club."
The club at Bowie (Texas) Elementary School is a discrete program that Brown, a third grade teacher, coordinates with the help of church organizations. In the BBC program, sacks of food to be used over the weekend are prepared for needy students and placed quietly in their backpacks during recess or physical education class on Friday. Participation is voluntary, and this year the BBC served 170 children.
"At the beginning of the school year, I send out permission forms to all the students at my elementary school," Brown told Education World. "If the parents feel their family is in need of extra assistance, they indicate that, sign the paper, and return it to school. I order the food from the food bank on Monday morning, the church committee packs the bags on Sunday afternoon, we take the bags to the school on Thursday night, and every Friday teachers distribute the food bags at their discretion."
Brown has realized on many occasions that her program has made a difference. In a survey she distributed, one child compared the BBC to "Christmas every Friday." When she inquired about the comparison, the boy said that on Christmas he usually received some yummy food and one toy, and that he would rather have the food than the toy.
Brown believes that the needs of children who are hungry can be obscured by a focus on academic achievement. Educators can fail to identify the deeper problem at the root of low performance. She is careful not to refer a child for special education without first assuring herself that his or her needs are met -- physically, emotionally, and academically.
"If a teacher notices a drop in grades or a sudden behavior change, there probably is more to the story than just a class clown who is looking for attention," notes Brown, who warns that even students with average grades can be at risk. "When a child comes to the class at the beginning of the school year very withdrawn and makes sure to eat every bite off his/her plate, a red flag should go up."
The underlying theme of the BBC is kindness. Brown hopes that showing compassion to children in need will instill the same generosity in those students, and that they will express it as they mature. She also hopes that reducing the obstacle of hunger for those youngsters will enhance their learning and academic performance. Asking children to pass a state-mandated test when their basic physiological needs are not met is too much, she adds.
"Research shows that children cannot succeed in school without their basic needs for food, shelter, safety, love, and esteem, being met first," Brown explained." No Child Left Behind is great if every child has the same opportunity to succeed, but unfortunately that is not always the case. We are leaving children behind, not because of their academic potential, but because of physical needs that are not being met because of circumstances the children didn't choose."
Article by Cara Bafile
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