It’s test time in Pennsylvania. Throughout the month of April, schools across the state are administering the annual Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). Teachers, principals and parents are focused on making sure students have the right tools and support to concentrate and excel.

School breakfast is an important part of that strategy. 

There is a powerful correlation between breakfast and academic performance. When kids consistently start the school day with breakfast, it has an impact on attendance rates and grades. Teachers report calmer classrooms, more focused students – and fewer trips to the nurse or principal’s office.

Many schools offer students free breakfast during test periods. To be truly successful, however, children need consistent access to a healthy morning meal all year long. Research shows that breakfast has a link to higher standardized test scores. One study by Deloitte Consulting found that standardized test scores rose by an average of 17.5 percent in high-need schools that reached students with school breakfast. In Virginia, 54 percent of schools that increased year-round breakfast participation saw an immediate increase in scores on the state standards of learning tests.

We know hunger makes school harder. For kids from low-income families, already burdened with the stressors that come with poverty, a guaranteed, easy-to-access breakfast is a game-changer. School breakfast programs help students start the day in the right frame of mind: they are calm, attentive, and ready to learn. 

Yet in Pennsylvania today, the school breakfast program isn’t always easy to access. In many schools, the meal is still served before the start of the school day, meaning too many kids are missing out. Bus or carpool schedules can make it difficult for students to get there on time, and other students skip breakfast because they don’t want to be singled out as poor or miss out on time socializing with their friends.

As a result, breakfast is only reaching 38 percent of kids who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

Something as simple as when breakfast is served can make all the difference. Shifting the time breakfast is served to make it a regular part of the school day (like lunch is) can guarantee that kids start the day on a level nutritional playing field.  

Schools across the state have begun to use innovative, creative new ways to serve breakfast after the bell, like serving simple, easy-to-eat breakfasts in the classroom as part of homeroom, or providing grab-and-go meals that students can pick up on their way to the classroom once the official school day has already begun. In Pennsylvania, breakfast counts as instructional time, so teachers can do attendance or go over yesterday’s lessons while their students eat. And when everyone eats together, it creates a feeling of community in the classroom and kids who need that morning meal no longer feel singled out.

Ask any educator and they’ll tell you: a healthy school breakfast is as important to learning as textbooks or pencils. Breakfast after the bell provides more kids with the healthy food they need to learn and achieve during PSSA testing – and the rest of the year as well.

Lisa Davis is Share Our Strength Senior Vice President; Dolores McCracken is the Pennsylvania State Education Association President.