By Anna Allanbrook
Principal, Brooklyn New School–PS 146
As principal of a public elementary school in Brooklyn, New York for fourteen years, after teaching there for several years, I can say that the dilemma presented by the epidemic of peanut allergy has been part of our administrative agenda for almost two decades. We have also faced many other allergy-related challenges in that time. For example, before we moved to our current building, we had a coal-fired furnace, which undoubtedly didn’t help our asthmatic kids. But though it may surprise some of the readers of this website, the peanut issue has grown less urgent over the years although the numbers of allergic students have grown. Why? Because the precautions we take are now so routine that it takes a backseat to the other exigencies of providing high quality education to Brooklyn children.
We have more than five hundred students in a building that also houses a grade six-to-twelve school. We have first-year admission based on a lottery to ensure a diverse student body. We have many special needs children. A significant percentage of our students qualify for free breakfast in the school. This is not a homogeneous population by any means, except for the fact that most of our families are attracted by our educational philosophy and reputation, which does, I suppose, incline our community towards consensus and trust, values that extend to things like the way food-related behavior is regulated. Peanut allergy is old news in our school and it is not a battle that has to be fought repeatedly. Attempts to opt out of vaccination are much more contentious.
When peanut allergy first popped up we improvised, creating a peanut-free table in our cafeteria where the school nurse presided each lunchtime. This may not have been much fun for the three kindergartners at that initial table, but they were safe and they were part of the action. We never had any incidents, and in time we abandoned this precaution. We know which children are at risk. The staff is universally trained in how to manage an emergency. At an initial staff meeting every year, the nurse reviews the signs of anaphylaxis and performs an EpiPen demonstration. Much of my wonderful staff has sat through this every year and know it by heart. The new recruits pay close attention and ask questions. They discuss how to advise parents about snacks and birthday fare. We also have a full complement of trips outside the schools, usually by subway and bus. Our students are not sealed from contact with the world of art, science, nature, or, and this is very important in our New York City “gorgeous mosaic” multicultural curriculum, food. But we are careful. Again, because of the spirit of community and shared values about the well-being of students, this is not a tough sell. Maybe if we had more of the fault lines in our population that have made this a problem elsewhere we would have a problem.
Quite a while back, we did have one incident in a classroom with a “cluster” teacher present—meaning a teacher who teaches a particular subject in several different classrooms. Someone had a snack that contained peanuts, and one little boy who probably knew better, just couldn’t resist. The nurse was summoned, the student was treated and rushed to the hospital.
I can’t generalize for every school in the country. As a mother, I certainly empathize with other parents’ worries. As a principal in New York, I also understand that I have the prerogative of making my school peanut free, but I think it would be an economic handicap to many of our students, and provide a misleading sense of security. For now, because of our long attention to the problem, our vigilant and well-trained staff, and because our families are united around a vision of good education, it’s just not an issue. We agree about the big things, and that has made managing peanut allergy a very small one for us.
(Elementary School Principal of the Year is awarded by the Academy of Educational Arts and Sciences)