THE BLOG
03/18/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

Even Cafeterias Are Part of School Culture

Not long ago I was in DeLisle Elementary School in Pass Christian, Miss., and met the person in charge of the cafeteria as she was setting out food for lunch.

A spate of terrible stories had just hit the news about school cafeteria workers ordering kids to throw food away because the students' accounts were too low to cover the cost. Humiliated kids were sent away with a carton of milk and a piece of fruit, according to the stories.

I mentioned this to the cafeteria director, and she flared up, saying that she would rather get fired than take food away from a child. With two-thirds of Pass Christian's children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch and at least some needy families too proud to apply for the benefit, she is no stranger to the issue of hunger. "Those could be my children," she said. Rather than throw out the food, she added, she would ask her friends and community for money to pay the children's lunch bills.

Note that the rules require that she not permit students to get lunches they haven't paid for. Most lunch lines, however, require kids to get the food first and go to the cash registers second, which means tension over payment is inevitable. I suspect that "Schools Allow Students to Freeload on Taxpayers," is the headline most cafeteria directors have worried about, not ones about embarrassing kids.

But think about the culture of a school where embarrassing kids is the norm. I wonder how connected kids feel to a school where they are humiliated -- even if the humiliation is confined to the cafeteria.

I should add that when the cafeteria director said she'd rather be fired than have a child go hungry, the principal of the school immediately demurred -- ensuring that children eat is hardly a firing offense in her book.

In Pass Christian, the stated expectation is that all school employees should treat all children as if they were their own -- just as the cafeteria director said she does.

For me the experience was a nice reminder that everyone in a school helps create a school's culture -- from the principal to the bus driver. Each person is part of shaping the experience of children, making them feel shamed or respected -- feelings that directly translate into whether they are ready to learn.

And it seems that the children at DeLisle are ready to learn. The school outperforms most schools in Mississippi with, for example, 73 percent of fifth-graders meeting state reading standards compared to 59 percent in the state and a whopping 97 percent meeting state math standards compared to 64 percent in the state.