CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In one year, Elkins Middle School has reduced office referrals by 20 percent and suspensions by 15 percent. Students are coming to class more, and they're late to class less.
Assistant Principal Angela Wilson says the secret to the Randolph County school's recent success is simple: breakfast.
"Nothing major was changed except for the way we do breakfast," Wilson said. "I absolutely believe it's the cause of the positive results we're seeing."
Elkins Middle is one of about 100 schools in West Virginia that use a new breakfast expansion program, which allows students to eat grab-and-go meals in the classroom instead of only offering meals at the very beginning of the school day in the cafeteria.
"Before this program, we kept seeing an increase in the number of kids who were not participating in class because they were sleepy and hungry, and it made them disruptive," Wilson said. "We have seen a significant decrease in discipline issues across the board since the program started."
A lot more students are eating breakfast, too, now that it's served at a later time and in a different setting. At the start of the last school year, before the program, about 125 students at the 700-plus Elkins school ate breakfast. Now, the school serves nearly 500 students.
The state has made a big push in the past year for more students to eat a healthy breakfast, teaming up with the Dairy Council and applying for grants to fund supplies such as carts to deliver the meals to classrooms, according to Kristy Blower of the state Office of Child Nutrition.
Since 2011, breakfast participation rates in West Virginia schools have increased by 6 percent. That means nearly 20,000 more students are eating breakfast this year than last year.
"We're eliminating any competition against breakfast -- that's what's making the difference," Blower said. "Instead of only offering breakfast early in the morning when students first arrive, they don't have to miss out if their bus is late or if they want to socialize.
"The elementary kids enjoy the family dining experience and benefit from that pattern of focusing on breakfast, and the older kids pay more attention in class because of a new-found source of energy."
The biggest challenge for implementing grab-and-go breakfast or having it delivered to classrooms is teachers accepting the program and administrators supporting it, according to the School Nutrition Association. Blower expects many more schools to implement the program, though, once they realize the benefits of something so inexpensive.