Florida high school segregates kids at lunch and grants special privileges based on grades

Some parents are uncomfortable with the division.

CREDIT: Getty
CREDIT: Getty

A Florida high school has decided to separate students by their academic performance and absences during lunch, upsetting many students and their parents. The program was introduced in the beginning of the school year, with the goal of providing incentives to students who were “on-track” to graduate.

Students at Hudson High School who have a GPA below 2.0, received an F in one class, and/or have four or more absences are considered to be in the “off-track” group, according to FOX 13, a television news outlet. It doesn’t matter whether the absences are excused or unexcused.

The students who fall into the off-track category must stay in the cafeteria for the whole lunch period, while on-track students, who get an ID and wristband identifying their on-track status, get to eat lunch outside the cafeteria and have other privileges. Students told Fox 13 that the lunchroom gets crowded because some of the on-track students choose to stay there during the period.

As some parents pointed out, this approach singles out students who aren’t performing well academically, as well as students who may have been ill or have a family emergency and are thus absent from school through no fault of their own. In addition, students without on-track privileges can’t even leave the lunchroom to see teachers, which seems to run against the goal of students getting academic help.

There is also the question of whether or not such a policy is infringing on the rights of students with disabilities. The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law intended to protect students with disabilities against discrimination, requires that students with disabilities are not isolated from classrooms where students without disabilities are being educated. It also protects students from being disciplined as a result of their disability. It’s not clear if this type of action is considered to fall under discipline or isolation for students with disabilities who don’t meet the criteria for being on track.

Kimberly Quick, a policy associate at The Century Foundation working on education policy, who focuses on diversity and inclusion, said a parent who raised concerns to the local news outlet about students with disabilities, difficult family situations, and illnesses is right to be worried, since it is likely that they would disproportionately affected by the policy.

“What this rule seems to be doing is creating a system where students are separated from peers based on things, some of which might be in their control but not all of them, making it difficult for students who may have different backgrounds and experiences to communicate with one another,” Quick said. “It’s stifling informal conversations that are important to have when you’re talking about educational development. High-achieving students and struggling students benefit from being able to form relationships with each other or have intellectual discussions or casual conversations at a lunch table.”

This approach toward punishing absences, even excused absences, seems to harm disadvantaged students more than it helps them. Students of color and students from low-income families are more likely to miss school compared to wealthier white classmates, according to a 2015 Attendance Works report. Students of color and low-income students’ absences were often related to health problems like learning disabilities, asthma, dental problems, and even mental health and trauma. The report explains that mental health counseling at schools and new approaches to dealing with trauma can help students who are frequently absent. Some schools have embraced a community school model, which means that social services and health services are at or near the school, which is supposed to make it easier for students to get help and stay on track in school.

In terms of whether this policy works for motivating either on-track students or students who don’t meet the criteria, Quick said it appears to be unhelpful to either group.

“Students meeting these criteria, who are on track to graduate and aren’t missing classes and aren’t failing anything, eventually are probably going to continue on that path,” Quick said. “I don’t think being able to eat lunch outside of the cafeteria is going to be an extremely strong incentive for them to keep on behaving in this way. Whether or not it is the intention, it’s really much more of a punshment to the students who are not on track.”

The new method to motivate students doesn’t appear to address other factors affecting students’ performance in school. The income achievement gap, for example, has widened and family income “is now nearly as strong as parental education in predicting children’s achievement” according to a 2011 Stanford University paper. A 2016 Northwestern University study said that the stress coming from race-based stressors — such as stereotype threat, a situation where people are concerned about conforming to stereotypes, in this case about a racial or ethnic group, and perceived discrimination — may play in a role in gaps in academic achievement between white students and students of color, mainly black and Latinx students.

This is certainly not the first lunchroom controversy to be criticized as shaming students. Some schools have instructed cafeteria staff to throw away students’ hot meals if their lunch debt is too high and stamp the hands of kids who received free lunches or could not afford their meals.

Quick said that a more effective strategy would be to have counselors meet with students or have enrichment opportunities and school time on a Saturday.

“Resources are often thin and I understand that, but those would be much more effective strategies if you’re trying to incentivize students who are struggling to do better,” Quick said.

She added, “Students exhibiting behavioral issues that would exclude them from the program or academic challenges that exclude them from the reward system are experiencing those due to difficulties they might be having. That could be diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities, that could be family situations, hunger, and trauma. We don’t know that without providing support and an infrastructure to help them work through that, so you may just end up punishing students who are already struggling to do better.”