SILVER SPRING – Richard, a kindergartner with close-cropped black hair, slurps his Tasteeos, then leans back and belches before turning to grin at a visitor to New Hampshire Estates Elementary on a recent morning.
Leslie, a demure brunette with pigtails, has poured just a touch of chocolate milk into her bowl to mix with the white. Keisha has loaded her Styrofoam tray with extra milk and points to a nearby seat where she says, with a full mouth, a visitor can sit.
At 8:30 a.m. on a school day, there may be no greater advocates of the Maryland Meals for Achievement program than Richard, Leslie, Keisha and their classmates in Room 216.
Because the meals are free to all students, regardless of income, there is no telling who in the class is poor enough to qualify for a free breakfast and who isn’t. That is one of the points of the program, which also brings meals to the classroom to encourage everybody to eat.
By most accounts, the program has had a positive impact on everything from social skills to academic performance.
Principal Joanne Busalacchi says she has seen far-reaching benefits since the program began at New Hampshire Estates in September, from better language skills to fewer health room visits.
Before the program, kids would “come up with stomachaches or they’d come up with headaches or they’d go up to the cafeteria and get into a fight with somebody, and that’s not happening,” she said.
The emotional benefits are harder to divine but perhaps no less important. Busalacchi said the program is “the closest you could come to” replicating a family situation in the classroom.
New Hampshire Estates is one of 48 Maryland schools that offer the state- funded free breakfast program, which supplements a federal program that provides free or reduced-price meals to needy children.
The state effort was launched after officials found that participation in the federally funded school breakfast program was languishing at around 11 percent of all students.
Sheila G. Terry, chief of nutrition and transportation services at the state Department of Education, said kids were not participating because of the hassle of going to the cafeteria and the stigma associated with getting a free meal.
The new program takes care of both problems. The state kicks in enough money — $964,000 this school year — to feed everyone at the 48 schools, and kids eat right in the classroom. Participation has jumped to about 80 percent of students in those schools, Terry said.
“I have teachers tell me this is the best thing we’ve ever done for kids,” she said. “We think of it as a school improvement tool. Kids are performing better.”
J. Michael Murphy, a Harvard researcher who is conducting an ongoing study of the Maryland program, said it appears that test have gone up in those schools.
“It all looks good, it really does,” Murphy said.
Schools serving classroom breakfast improved their scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program test by 22 percent, compared to 5 percent statewide, Murphy said. His studies have also found fewer behavior problems, less tardiness and better attention among students in these schools.
“That’s on the cold, hard data front,” Murphy said. “It looks like things are better, 10 to 20 percent better.”
He said there are other indications that the program is working. His most recent figures show that 83 percent of the staff at these schools believe the program has had a positive impact.
“Parents love it, kids love it. . .and the complaints of hunger have decreased significantly,” Murphy said.
The program started in six schools in 1998-99 and expanded to 11 schools a year later. It moved into 48 schools this year, including New Hampshire Estates.
The Silver Spring school is a cheerful place, where doors are painted pink and goofy celebrations like “Backwards Day” happen every month, which explained why Busalacchi wore a Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt and a backwards baseball cap Friday.
Yet staff say the school is in a community where parents rise before dawn and work until dusk just to make ends meet. Those parents may not have the time to make breakfast for their children or the money to afford it.
But if children go to school hungry today, they don’t stay that way.
“I think it’s been a really good thing,” said Room 216 teacher Tina Barrett. Even if her kids show up late, Barrett lets them eat.
“Sometimes I’ll see some who trickle in late and say, `I didn’t get anything for breakfast.’ They really look forward to it,” she said.
Friday’s offerings included cereal, juice and milk. Some days, students get bagels, yogurt, egg-and-cheese croissants or other goodies.
“I try to get my son to eat at home but he says, `No, I want to eat at school,'” Maria Ramos said through an interpreter of her son, Jose, 5. “He loves the school food.”
Donna McQueen said her daughter, Courtney, 6, will not eat breakfast at home anymore, either.
“It’s sort of a social event so she’s inspired to come to school early these days,” McQueen said. “I know there are a lot of children in this community who wouldn’t get breakfast without it. I like it for that reason.”