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Middle Schools Re-imagine Cafeterias in Pilot Program

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Seven schools across the city are experimenting with ways to improve the middle school cafeteria—a setting infamous for cliques, bullying and boredom. NY1's Lindsey Christ filed this report.

At I.S. 230 in Jackson Heights, kings, queens and pawns dominate the cafeteria social scene.

"Before they get their lunch, they're getting their chess sets. They sign them out. There is protocol to do so. They get on line, they sign them out and they go. Oftentimes the dean has to remind them to eat lunch," says Principal Ronald Zirin.

At M.S. 129 in the Bronx, students also play games throughout lunch—mostly classic American games, like Uno and Connect Four, which fit the setting, a cafeteria decorated to look like a 1950s diner.

"I don’t see bullying in there. I don’t see any real issues or problems except for children laughing and having fun. It’s really helped change of the whole dynamic of the lunch room," says Principal Ray Granda.

That's exactly what Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña asked the schools to do: find ways to make middle school lunch a positive part of the day. These are two among seven, spread over all five boroughs, participating in the pilot program.

"Middle school is a tough age group and research shows that if you don't pull kids in now, during the middle school, you are going to lose them," Zirin says.

He says chess has been a huge hit, with almost every student playing or watching, every day.

"I got so excited, I told my friends, 'Come on! Let's go play, let's go play!'" says student David Rodriguez.

"It's like that one moment where we don't use electronics for once and we just have fun together," student Nataly Leal says.

"We have so many English Language Learners in this school, some students with special needs and it's fine. It's gender-less, it's language free, so even if they don't know Chess 101, they are learning from each other," Zirin says.

At M.S. 129, the students say the diner decor has transformed their windowless cafeteria.

"The mural has a lot of colors and it makes the room pop," says student Ashley Gomez.

"The mural is so beautiful. I just love it. It’s so creative, and I don’t think any school has ever done that before and it’s just really pretty," says another student, Kaitlyn Antigua.

Their principal says students used to skip the cafeteria and go right to the schoolyard. Now they're staying in the lunchroom and eating which he says makes for smoother sailing.

"In general, the school is just running better in the afternoon," Granda says.

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