Back to school

From left, Broad Creek Middle School cafeteria manager Terri Schmidt talks to Brian Lynch, his eighth-grade daughter Natalie and his wife Michelle about the free breakfast and lunch program that will be offered to all county elementary and middle school students. They were among many families attending open houses last week in preparation for the opening of school Monday. (Cheryl Burke photo)

BROAD CREEK — As county school officials keep a watchful eye on a potential tropical system off the coast, schools are also preparing for the anticipated return of students Monday.

Broad Creek Middle School seventh-grader Nathan Britten was among many county students attending open houses Thursday who said they have mixed feelings about returning to class.

“I’m excited to get back to school to see my friends, but I’m nervous because I’m going up a grade and that will bring new things,” Nathan said.

The state Department of Public Instruction is projecting a student enrollment of 8,164 in county public schools for the 2019-20 academic year, up slightly from last year. That figure won’t be official until the 20th school day.

BCMS students and parents visited various tables set up in the commons area Thursday to pick up schedules, visit classrooms and find out what’s new for the 2019-20 year.

The school’s cafeteria manager Terri Schmidt was touting a new program which will provide free breakfasts and lunches to all county elementary and middle school students for the next four years.

“They don’t have to qualify for it. They just have to show up,” Ms. Schmidt said. “I know this will take a lot of stress off the parents.”

She further said parents can add funds on their child’s meal account if they want them to have additional food to what is provided.

The program is made possible thanks to a federal Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free meals in school districts with a high percentage of students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-meal program.

County high schools currently don’t qualify. Child Nutrition Director Melissa Albright said the percentage of elementary and middle school students qualified for the program jumped last school year because of the many families displaced by Hurricane Florence.

According to those statistics, the percentage of county elementary and middle school students who qualify for CEP is nearly 59%. To be eligible for the provision, at least 40% of students must meet the requirements.

Ms. Schmidt and her cafeteria workers said they are excited to provide free meals to their students.

“I just hope everybody takes advantage of this wonderful opportunity to feed all of our students,” Ms. Schmidt said.

Cafeteria worker Rose Dail agreed, saying she’s been aware of many students going through the line in the past who couldn’t afford lunch.

“The kids need this very much,” she said. “We did offer an alternative meal if a student didn’t have enough money on their account, but this makes it equal for everyone.”

Ms. Schmidt explained that at her school, breakfasts will be served in homeroom  each morning.

“Each class will have two students come down and pick up the breakfasts for their room,” she said.

Lunches will be served in the cafeteria.

Students and parents attending the open house said they were grateful for the program.

Nathan’s mother, Kristine Britten, said, “I think it’s great. It gives them more variety. My husband and I both work and we don’t always have time to prepare lunches.”

Nathan agreed.

“Sometimes I have to fix lunches for me and my brothers and I don’t want to do it. This will be a lot better,” he said.

Parent Michelle Lynch, who has an eighth-grader at the school, agreed.

“This will be huge for a lot of families,” Ms. Lynch said.

BCMS Principal Sarah Weinhold said she is looking forward to providing free meals to students as well.

“I think it’s great. Middle school students can eat,” Ms. Weinhold said. “We’ll just build the boat as we go while we figure out how this will work, but we’re going to make it happen.”

As for student enrollment at her school, Ms. Weinhold said as of Thursday it had already surpassed last year.

“We’re already at 680-plus, and last year we had 650. We’re still registering students,” she said. “We have a lot of new students at our school, the largest number I’ve seen since I’ve been a principal here. Many of them are military families, but that’s not all of them. A lot of families have told me they moved here because of the good reputation of our schools.”

Alicia Mahnke was among new parents registering students. She said her husband recently transferred to the area to start working with the Wounded Warriors program at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.

“My husband and I chose this area because of the schools,” Ms. Mahnke said. “My husband did his homework and we chose our house because of the schools.”

Ms. Lynch, who is active duty with the U.S. Navy, said her family also moved to the county because of the schools.

“We just moved from Onslow County because we wanted to be in this school district,” she said.

As for changes to the school system’s schedule because of threatening weather, Communications Director Tabbie Nance said parents and employees are notified through several methods. A phone call is sent to all those affected and the information is posted on the school system’s Facebook page and website. Employees receive an email.

Information is also provided to area media, and County Emergency Management officials share information, Ms. Nance said.

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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