In a locally unprecedented move, the School District of Philadelphia will hold principals accountable for the number of students eating breakfast in their schools.

Breakfast participation will be part of the report card that rates principals each year, along with categories such as attendance and math and reading performance.

All 165,000 students in Philadelphia public schools, regardless of income, are eligible for free breakfasts. But just 54,000 ate breakfast last year, district figures show.

The new system, which begins this year, is expected to increase the number of students eating breakfast, said Jonathan Stein, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, whose efforts - along with those of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) - helped bring about the move.

Many studies have shown that breakfast boosts student performance and health.

"This is the first accountability system for school meals in the history of the school system," Stein said. "It's very exciting."

Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the district, said he was equally pleased.

"One of our main goals is to help improve a child's ability to learn," he said. "We're working with the principals to make this happen. They're already reaching out to us."

Not everyone is happy, however.

"You're doing a disservice to principals by holding them accountable without controlling for other variables," said Michael Lerner, president of Teamsters Local 502, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators.

Should a principal be blamed for a student who ate breakfast at home and therefore doesn't eat in school, asked Lerner, who was a principal for 22 years.

"Are we going to get to forced feedings?" he continued. "I think it's wrong to assume no parent in Philadelphia is providing breakfast each day."

And, Lerner added, many children wind up not eating, thereby wasting food.

"If you know kids," he said, "they'll eat what they want and when they want."

High-poverty areas

Advocates point out that many Philadelphia children live in high-poverty areas, and thus are more likely to be without the kind of nutritious foods that mandatory breakfasts provide.

And Grasela added that "it doesn't count against principals if kids already ate, because we already assumed that in our target numbers, which are reasonable and attainable."

Not every principal will be held to the same numbers, he added, saying the targets are on a graduated scale, taking into account established lower rates of breakfast participation at certain schools.

The goal is to increase breakfast participation by 35 percent over the next two years, so that participation would be 70,000 students by 2011, Stein said.

There is a huge disparity among schools in serving breakfast, according to a School District Division of Food Services analysis.

In some schools, participation is as low as 18 percent, while in others it's around 98 percent. Some schools showed as much as a 50 percent increase in breakfast participation from 2007 to 2008, while others showed a decrease of as much as 20 percent.

"Some schools need the push of accountability," said Kathy Fisher, PCCY family economic security associate. "We're really pleased the district is taking this important step to support kids' learning."

Testing periods

Fisher learned through a PCCY survey she conducted last winter that many Philadelphia principals appear to work harder to have their students eat breakfast in school during testing periods - when principals' performance is being judged - than they do during the rest of the year.

Principals and teachers face intense pressure from the school district's central administration for students to perform well on the tests, which measure academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

At the time of the survey, Michael Masch, the district's chief business officer, acknowledged that "there is evidence that principals make breakfast a priority during testing."

He added, "If we can do it during testing, we ought to be able to do it all the time."

Masch's assertion will now be put into practice.

"Making principals accountable for breakfast is critical," said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a Washington nonprofit that works to eradicate hunger. "School breakfast is so important that it makes sense to hold people in the system responsible."

Weill said there were no reliable statistics on how many other U.S. school districts grade principals on breakfast.

Just how food will be served in Philadelphia schools is up to principals. Studies show, however, that more children eat when breakfast is served in the first class of the day.

Last year, the vast majority of the district's 267 schools served food in their cafeterias before the school day began, Grasela said. Just 47 served them in classrooms, he said.

Typically, principals have resisted such service, saying it detracted from instructional time.

But in the spring, the Pennsylvania Department of Education ruled that if students throughout the state eat breakfast in their first class with a teacher present, it will be counted as instructional time.

Fresh from his triumph tying principal performance to breakfast, Stein added, "First-class service should be required throughout the school system."

This summer, principals received their schools' first-ever report cards, based on goals from the 2008-09 school year. Those first report cards - which did not include the breakfast goal - will be made public this month, officials said.

The breakfast initiative represents a "fine-tuning" of the report cards, which were imposed by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, a district spokesman said.