By Christopher Paslay

For Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, it's not enough that the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single city school. Now, principals must coax the students into eating it.

Under a new district policy, principals will be held accountable for the number of student breakfasts eaten in each school. District officials reason that including breakfast participation in a principal's performance rating will increase the number of students taking advantage of these free meals.

There's no denying that nutrition has an impact on a child's ability to learn. I've been teaching in Philadelphia for 13 years, and when my students are hungry, they have difficulty focusing on the lesson and staying on task. If I had my way, every child in the district would eat a hearty breakfast, complete with vitamins and dietary supplements to keep their minds sharp and their growing bodies strong and healthy.

But nutrition should not be the responsibility of school principals. Two of the district's five official Core Beliefs are that "parents are our partners," and "it takes the engagement of the entire community to ensure the success of its public schools." The district's decision to hold principals accountable for students' eating breakfast contradicts this philosophy entirely.

In fact, it seems as if the district has written off parents and the community altogether, deeming them too irresponsible to provide even the most basic guidance and care to their children.

Recently, to keep better track of subsidized school meals, the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted to change the rules of its Universal Feeding Program, the free breakfast and lunch program offered solely in the Philadelphia School District. The program doesn't require students or their families to fill out applications to get subsidized meals, and USDA officials wanted to start requiring the forms for accounting purposes.

The school district and advocacy groups went berserk over the proposal. They insisted that forcing students to fill out an application for a free meal is too daunting - that parents of impoverished children are too overwhelmed to deal with complicated forms. The USDA ultimately relented.

Philadelphia School District officials are constantly talking about "raising the bar" when it comes to education and making academics more "rigorous." Meanwhile, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has announced that the education reform train is leaving the station, and everyone must get on board. Why, then, aren't parents being asked to contribute?

I understand that filling out applications can be intimidating to some people, but why doesn't the district call on its parent ombudsmen to help struggling mothers and fathers learn the skill? So many things in life require an application - a driver's license, a checking account, a credit card.

But the district doesn't want to be bothered with the inconvenience of working with parents. It's better to keep students and their families in their comfort zone - quiet, pacified, hopelessly dependent.

Unfortunately, this is the attitude the district has taken when it comes to feeding students free breakfasts. The right thing would be to work with the community and educate citizens on the importance of nutrition. Free meals could be promoted on a grassroots level in Philadelphia's impoverished neighborhoods, encouraging moms and dads to take part in their children's health and schooling. Then, maybe, more kids would skip the Pepsi and bag of Doritos at the bus stop in the morning and get to school in time for the free apple juice and bagel with cream cheese.

But, unfortunately, district officials think it's easier to blame the principals.

Children rise to the level of expectations. If we made a true commitment to our students and their families, we could put a real dent in the cycle of poverty.

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher. His blog, "Chalk and Talk," is at http://chalkandtalk.wordpress.com.