BAYONET POINT — Mary Hoffman stood just inside the entrance of Schrader Elementary School, her heavy carts beside her, and braced for the onslaught of students.
"We have new pancakes!" Hoffman announced, as the kids streamed in. "They have cinnamon butter."
Almost everyone was a taker. If they didn't want the pancakes, they grabbed waffle sticks and peanut butter and jellies, chocolate milks and orange juices. Those who passed explained they already ate at home.
"It's good and hot and I want to eat so I'm not hungry during class," fifth-grader Daisy Lopez said between bites, sitting in the media center while waiting to present the school news. "Breakfast is an important meal of the day."
That's a message that Schrader cafeteria manager JoAnn Schmidt and her team have worked hard to pass along to all the school's students. They've been so successful with their breakfast carts at the car and bus loops that they've seen nearly 90 percent of students getting school breakfast, up from less than 40 percent when everyone had to eat in the cafeteria.
And, Schmidt proudly notes, "We have been an A school since we started it. Breakfast is the most important meal for the children. They need to eat. If they're hungry, they're not going to do well."
Schrader, where 71 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, recently won the 2008 Expanding Breakfast Award from the Dairy Council of Florida because of its successes. Mitchell High placed second in the contest, which Chasco Elementary won a year ago. The award was announced in conjunction with national School Breakfast Week.
District officials want to build upon these strides by getting even more schools to try new ways to get children to eat breakfast.
"Research shows they tend to perform better academically, they tend to behave better and they tend to have a better attention span" after a healthy breakfast, said food and nutrition services marketing coordinator Emily Laymon, who's also a dietitian.
Yet obstacles often stand in the way.
Sometimes parents don't have the time or the means to provide a nutritional breakfast. Yet when students get to school, their rides might arrive too close to the bell to give them time to get one, even if the school offers it for free, as Schrader and 31 other Pasco schools do.
The goal, Laymon said, is to make it easier to get something to eat.
Three methods gaining favor in Pasco are:
• "Breakfast at the loop," similar to Schrader's system. Thirteen county schools use this one. Northwest Elementary was the first.
• Grab and go breakfast, where kids can go to the cafeteria and get a quick meal to take to class. Four schools participate in this concept.
• Breakfast in the classroom, where students arrive early to their rooms and place orders that are sent to the cafeteria. The food then is delivered to class. Five schools do this.
Two more schools reached tentative plans to expand their breakfast options earlier this week, Laymon said, and officials at several others — especially at middle and high schools — have inquired about how to get with the program.
Schrader students said they enjoy school breakfast. They like the choices, and also the ability to wake up a bit later while still getting fed before lessons begin.
"At home, (eating) wastes time to come to school, or I will be late, so I eat here," fourth grader Jillian Rudin said, sitting at her desk with her pancakes and chocolate milk. Also, she added, "I like the breakfast here. It's really good."
Angela Rocco, Jillian's classmate, said school breakfast is so tasty that sometimes she asks her parents to let her eat at school rather than at home.
"I do like the breakfast here," she said. "It's healthy for you."
Teachers also like the benefits that come with the initiative.
The kids don't complain about stomachaches in the middle of class, second-grade teacher Cathy Ridle noted. They also make it to class on time rather than dawdling between the cafeteria and the classroom in the morning, third-grade teacher Paula Riggs added.
Mindy Predmore, Jillian's teacher, said she liked that students not only seem better focused on their studies, they also get some extra time in the classroom for reading, computers and other academics once they're finished eating. And they've become so accustomed to eating in class that they routinely clean up and finish before the day's first bell.
Thursday morning was no exception. By 9:30 a.m., as Predmore said "I'd like to see you ready for reading," all her students' had thrown away their trash, swallowed their food and had their books on their desks.
Susan Garritani, who helps oversee Schrader's breakfast program, said she's thrilled the effort has worked.
"Every kid in this school has an opportunity to eat," she said. "Rain or shine, we are there."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.