EAST MARLBOROUGH—A couple of years ago, Unionville-Chadds Ford School District pioneered a program that enabled high school and middle school students to start the school day later. A recent report has touted the benefits of the program, academic scores have increased, and more school districts in Chester County are considering implementing a delayed school start.

And now, Unionville High School, with its 1,400 students, has embarked on another first in Chester County which also may be duplicated by neighboring school districts. It’s called Lunch and Learn, and after just five weeks of implementation, students say they will never go back to the traditional lunch periods.

Here’s how it works. Students get an hour for lunch, but they can use that time as they please. Some play basketball, ping pong or foosball. Others utilize the time to brush up on exams. Others work on school projects or make up tests in the testing center. Still others schedule one-on-one time with their teacher, which would have had to be done after school under the previous lunch period.

Homerooms are no longer scheduled and attendance is taken during first period. Teachers have office hours during Lunch and Learn and seat time for lunch for students has increased. Food is served at three different café stations, and a live local eat station has been introduced featuring organic foods.

Students do not leave campus during this time, but they do have access to one of three outdoor courtyards, which have been spiffed up with new furniture.

“I’ve been in education for 25 years and this is probably one of the most interesting things that I have experienced,” said Jimmy Conley, high school principal. It’s been awesome. We talk all the time about the social and emotional wellness of our kids, well, this is it.”

Actually, Conley got the idea for Lunch and Learn from Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District. But it has never been attempted in Chester County, and Conley said the concept of having students collaborate during lunch period was too alluring.

“The kids are happy and they really like it,” Conley said. “The feedback from the staff has just been overwhelming. We are giving kids the opportunity to choose. We do a lot of great things here. One of the things we can do better is to help the students and provide them with the opportunity to be advocates for themselves and to be advocates for their learning.”

During a tour of Lunch and Learn, every student asked about the new program said they loved it.

“I like it a lot,” said Maggie Lawrence, a senior. “Every day I know there is free time my teacher has that I also have. Right now, I am getting a paper edited by my teacher, but I also have time to eat lunch.”

Ava Gates is a freshman, but already she likes the program.

“I like the option of go talk to teachers without feeling stressed about how to find the time,” she said. “It’s easier to talk with your teacher with set time in your schedule.”

Josie Tucker said the new program is beneficial for students who miss tests, and don’t have to stay after school to make it up.

“You have a whole hour to make up the test,” Tucker said. “You can eat for 15 minutes and go to the testing center and take the whole test.”

During Lunch and Learn, there are seven staffers supervising the building: Conley, two assistant principals, the dean of students and three security guards.

“We’re giving students the freedom to choose, but there still must be supervision,” Conley said. “If a student is a bad actor, we have conversation and in the end they may lose this privilege. For us to do this, we have to have trust in our students.”

Kathy DiFillippo, a teacher at the high school, said students have been coming in during study hall to do projects and study.

“I provide lessons on writing and the kids collaborate,” she said. “Some of the students never had time to collaborate before.”

Julie Hawkes, chair of the school’s Spanish Department, said the program already has been lowering absenteeism.

“The AP (Advanced Placement) kids seem to come in a lot more,” she said. “The lunch period used to be three periods with bells ringing all the time. Now, everyone is at lunch as the same time. This is more relaxing for all of us.”

Conley said teachers have also embraced Lunch and Learn.

“Now I have built-in collaboration time during the day for teachers, which has never happened before,” Conley said. “So that’s a real win for the teachers as well. They can be with their colleagues and work on a curricular initiative we have in school. This is time in the day that we have repurposed.”

High School social workers Sara Graden and Linda Brodeur say students are already reaping benefits of Lunch and Learn.

“They are experiencing a great opportunity for social and emotional learning within unstructured time they didn’t normally have,” Graden said.

“This is an opportunity for student tl learn how to self-advocate for themselves by going to a teacher that might be available,” Brodeur said. “Our students are not used to having down time. This helps them to grow socially and emotionally.”

Conley said that as mid-terms approach, he’s curious to see how many students who typically take to the outdoors to throw footballs or work out at the gym will use the time for study.

“I think the sky’s the limit for us on this,” Conley said. “The student experience is really important for me. It’s great that we do so well academically, but if that’s all our focus is, we’re not doing our jobs.”

Conley said Lunch and Learn is so efficient, he can feed the entire building in 20 minutes. And he said that while he walks the halls during Lunch and Learn, he is able to communicate with many students, giving him greater insight into student life. “I’m walking the whole hour, so I’m getting my steps in,” he said.

John Sanville, superintendent of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, said so far, the initiative is exceeding expectations.

"Lunch and learn is an innovative way to provide our students and staff a moment to relax,” he said. “You need only walk the building to experience what a positive impact on organizational health this initiative is having - the feeling is palpable."

Meanwhile, even though Lunch and Learn is a pilot program, Conley said it’s here to stay.

“We have a lot of great initiatives, but when you see the impact this has on the kids, I don’t know how I can ever go back,” he said. “It’s important for kids to connect with one another, and this does that.”

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