Wisconsin School Breaks Up Lunchtime Cliques With Assigned Seating

Oct 23, 2019
Originally published on October 24, 2019 7:50 am

There's a scene in the movie Mean Girls where new student Cady Heron gets a lesson from her friend, Janice Ian, about the social hierarchy of the high school cafeteria.

"Where you sit in the cafeteria is crucial," Janice says. She then maps out the cliques, including preps, jocks and, of course, the "plastics."

The scene is an exaggeration of a common experience: the stress of finding your place in a school cafeteria. But Wisconsin resident Smitha Chintamaneni can't relate.

"I've never had that experience," she said. "I've never been at the cool kids' table or the nerd table. We never had that at my school."

Chintamaneni is an alum of the University School of Milwaukee, a private K-12 school in the suburb of River Hills. One of the most unusual things about the University School is its long-standing tradition of assigned lunch seating.

For new students, the seating rules can be a welcome relief. Sophomore Kylie Burger went to public elementary and middle schools before coming to the University School her freshman year of high school.

"At first I was really hyped," said Kylie, 15. "I moved a lot with middle school, and usually I would sit alone. So I was excited to not sit alone at a table all year."

The students are randomly assigned to eight-person circular tables, which rotate depending on that day's schedule. Each has a mix of kids from different grades, with one teacher whose job is to get the table talking. Kylie says it doesn't always go as planned.

"Sometimes it gets super awkward at tables," she explained. "Like the conversation goes, 'OK, what did you just come out of?' 'Math.' 'OK.' And that was really kind of where it ends."

But administrators say a little awkwardness is worth the trouble. Dean of Students Charlie Housiaux says forcing students to get out of their social comfort zones builds relationships that improve the school culture.

"It's a really valuable way for students to get to know each other, for students to meet new friends and keep the community as inclusive as possible," Housiaux said.

High school students at lunch in the University School of Milwaukee's cafeteria. Students are assigned seats, along with staff, to foster a positive school culture.
Emily Files / WUWM

University of Kansas education professor Suzanne Rice edited a book that explores the social dynamics of school lunch. She says the University School's assigned seating strategy is rare — but maybe it shouldn't be.

"A meal is the venue over which adults get to know one another and develop their social skills. But we treat that utterly cavalierly in most schools," Rice said. "I would urge schools to investigate what's going on in your own lunchroom. Think about how you could organize students' lunchroom experience to better reflect the values that you hope your students are acquiring."

One Wisconsin public school asked those questions a few years ago. Gibraltar Elementary in Fish Creek was having problems with bullying in the cafeteria, according to assistant principal Tim Mulrain. He says a school parent told them about the University School's assigned seating. They decided to try it, although Gibraltar did not require teachers to participate. Mulrain says the strategy transformed the lunchroom into a more welcoming and less chaotic space.

"We haven't had any major referrals, any major discipline problems since the inception of the program," Mulrain said. "That was a major change. On top of that, we see students aren't rushing through the lunch line, they're not having anxiety about who they're going to sit with."

At the University School, Kylie said the assigned seating doesn't fix everything. Like any high school, there are still cliques.

"The lunch system is more kind of a relief from [the cliques,]" Burger said. "It doesn't reduce it in any way, from my experience. But it definitely, like, gives you a break."

Burger said there are times she would rather sit with her friends. But she thinks it's a good thing that at this school, no one sits alone.

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Imagine being back in your high school cafeteria. What do you remember? Rectangular pizza, Tater Tots, paralyzing dread when you walked by the popular girls' table - check. Navigating the cafeteria social scene can be stressful, so some schools are doing lunch differently. Emily Files of member station WUWM visited a school in Wisconsin where assigned seating is the move.

EMILY FILES, BYLINE: Fifteen-year-old Kylie Burger was relieved when she found out she wouldn't have to wander the cafeteria at her new school, looking for a place to sit.

KYLIE BURGER: At first, I was really hyped because I had lots of different experiences with that. I moved a lot with middle school. But usually I would, like, sit alone, so this was - I was, like, really excited to not, you know, sit alone at the table for a whole year (laughter).

FILES: Kylie is a sophomore at the University School of Milwaukee, a private K-12 school in the suburb of River Hills. Students here are randomly assigned to lunch tables, which rotate depending on that day's schedule. Each has a mix of kids from different grades, with one teacher whose job it is to get the table talking. Kylie says it doesn't always go as planned.

KYLIE: Sometimes a lot of - like, it gets super awkward at tables. Like, the conversation usually goes from, like, OK, so what did you just come out of? Math. OK. And that was really kind of where it ends.

FILES: But administrators say a little awkwardness is worth the trouble. Charlie Housiaux is dean of students and says the assigned seating improves school culture by forcing students out of their social comfort zones.

CHARLIE HOUSIAUX: It's a really valuable way, too, for students to get to know each other, for students to meet new friends and to keep the community as inclusive as possible.

FILES: Suzanne Rice gets excited when she hears about schools rethinking the cafeteria. Rice is a University of Kansas professor who studies the social impacts of school lunch.

SUZANNE RICE: Kids go to school lunch every day, millions and millions of kids, and they do it year in and year out. And nobody has stopped to really ask, what are they learning through this experience?

FILES: She thinks breaking up lunchtime cliques is something more schools should consider.

RICE: A meal is the venue over which adults get to know one another and develop their social skills, but we treat that utterly cavalierly in most schools.

FILES: At least one Wisconsin public school got positive results with a more structured lunch. Gibraltar Elementary switched to assigned tables in 2015 to reduce bullying. Assistant Principal Tim Mulrain says it worked.

TIM MULRAIN: We haven't had any major referrals, any major discipline problems in the lunchroom since the inception of the program. That was a major change.

FILES: Back at the University School of Milwaukee, sophomore Kylie Burger says the assigned seating doesn't fix everything. Like any high school, there are still cliques.

KYLIE: The lunch system is more kind of, like, a relief that. It doesn't separate it. It doesn't reduce it in any way, from my experience. But it definitely, like, gives you a break.

FILES: Kylie says there are times she would rather sit with her friends, but she thinks it's a good thing that at this school no one sits alone.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Files in Milwaukee.

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