This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Auditing a school’s lunch program is not a standard initiative for teenagers. Yet students from Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture & Design (CHAD) became auditors for 10 weeks.
“It took a lot of hard work, but it was a great opportunity,” said De’ Juan Newton, an 11th grader at CHAD who played a large role in the project.
As part of the Office of the City Controller’s Mentor Program, 10 students in grades 9-12 from CHAD worked closely with mentors at the Controller’s Office to test their school’s compliance with the USDA’s nutrition standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs.
According to the compliance audit report released by the Controller’s Office, the students conducted the mock audit using professional auditing standards and guidelines.
The report shows that the students came away with two major findings.
The audit found that the daily servings offered in the fruit, vegetable, grains, meat and milk categories met the federal guidelines for what students are supposed to receive.
Yet the audit also pointed out that the management staff at CHAD failed to share the food services contract that it has with The Nutrition Group, which would show how much the school spends on meals and the type and content of meals that are served.
“To arrive at these conclusions, students measured servings and recorded this data in tables and photographs,” said Brian Dries, the office’s director of communications.
Students also researched CHAD’s financial statements, lunch menus, and the Federal Register, which contains the final rule for nutrition standards in the lunch and breakfast programs.
“Their biggest challenge was reviewing the federal guidelines, but they were very engaged and committed and showed a lot of effort,” Dries said. “It’s something that helps them now in school and once they get to college. Once they get out of college, they’ll realize that research and writing are things you also do outside of school.”
In the audit report, students recommend that the school provide relevant cost information about school lunches on the website and make nutrition data and meal ingredients visible in the lunchroom and on the website.
At the press conference, CHAD’s CEO, Greg Wright, said that he would work with the students to make the improvements they suggested.
“The greatest challenge for me was figuring how to write all of this information in a report,” Newton said. “I had to really think about what I wanted to write, and it had to make sense."
Based on his work, Newton was offered a summer internship with the controller, where he is now working in engineering.
“I plan to use this experience to get into a good college,” he said. He plans to pursue engineering and finance in the future.
Butkovitz said that the program started as a financial literacy program for elementary school students. This year, it evolved into a mentorship project for high school students. In addition to working during the regular school day, the students came into the Controller’s Office for several hours one day a week after school.
Besides working on the project, students got advice about writing resumes and finding college opportunities. The staff made the students’ time in the office a full-fledged “simulated work experience,” Butkovitz said.
“It was impressive that this group of students, in a period of 10 weeks, had absorbed the mystique and the techniques of a profession that most people don’t even know about.”
Butkovitz plans to work with CHAD again next year and to expand the program to another high school.
“We’re hoping that other government agencies and businesses will continue to expand front-line, real work experience for students in Philadelphia schools,” he said.