ARLINGTON -- A school with 2,800 students, one 43-minute lunch period and no cafeteria?
Sounds like a recipe for bedlam.
But at Arlington High School, where the lunchroom is shuttered the entire school year for a much-needed expansion, kids appear to be getting fed quickly and with few headaches for the staff.
"To be honest, it's running smoother than I expected," Assistant Principal Shahveer Dhalla said.
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The school has gone to hallway food kiosks to serve the usual 1,000 meals a day based on virtually the same menu, from pizza to pineapple. Eight of the tiny feeding stations are scattered across the building -- compared with only four serving lines in the cafeteria last year -- so lunch is handled in one period instead of two.
At a recent lunch period, students queued up at the kiosks when the lunch bell rang at 12:25. Within 15 minutes, the lines had cleared, and the servers had little other business until the lunch-ending bell at 1:08.
Students grabbed their trays and sat with friends on the floor or gathered in one of several classrooms that teachers have opened for lunch, or they stepped outside to dine alfresco.
"At first I thought it was kind of weird, not being able to sit down at a table with your friends," senior David Rasmussen said. "But after the first week, it seemed pretty normal."
Construction on the $8.6 million expansion project has been under way since June and will continue through May. Next school year, students and staff will find a new lunchroom and kitchen that will be twice the size and serving capacity of the old ones and a new 13-classroom wing on the building's west side.
Five of those classrooms will make up for five that were converted to science labs last year. But eight new rooms will address overcrowding at the 55-year-old campus at 818 W. Park Row Drive, a 127,000-square-foot building that has been expanded several times. It's now 394,000 square feet but is past its capacity for students and staff.
Bob Carlisle, executive director for district plant services, said the added space should eliminate the need for the four temporary buildings on the west side. The other portable, on the east side, is reserved for college dual-credit classes and will remain, he said.
As disruptive as the classroom construction may appear to passing motorists, the real contingency planning was needed on the inside. Not only did the serving lines have to move into the halls, but the food services department also had to establish new logistics to prepare food off-campus and truck it in.
The hot meals are now made at the catering kitchen at the main food services office and warehouse at 1206 W. Arkansas Lane. That required reducing the regular workload of that kitchen, which serves events ranging from retirement parties to school board meetings.
"We do 750 catering functions a year normally," Food Services Director Jackie Anderson said. "We've cut back extensively."
The staff also now uses the kitchen at the former Turning Point Elementary campus to prepare salads and sandwiches and package fresh veggies and fruit.
The new alignment requires more labor -- four full-time positions were added -- and those costs will likely cause the Arlington High food service to operate at a slight loss this school year, though not enough to put the district program in the red, Anderson said.
The district food services' $28 million budget is supported by state and federal funding as well as what it charges for student lunches and catering. It gets nothing from the district's operating budget.
Despite the added strain, there's been no skimping on the menu. Among the few food items not being served this year are baked french fries "because it does not transport well," Anderson said. The district hasn't fried food in years.
The school community has widely accepted the change, Anderson said.
"I've only had a couple of parents call, just to ask, 'What are you going to do?' 'What is my kid going to eat?'" she said.
Not all parents are on board, however. Tim and Kelley Simpson vented their frustration on the school district's Facebook page.
"I would bet that the teachers and staff do not sit on the floor or go outside in this record-breaking heat to eat lunch," Tim Simpson wrote. "I find this to be unsanitary and a disgrace for the AISD to allow this to continue."
School officials said they've heard no complaints from students.
Certainly not from junior Marica Bernardy, who said she enjoys having all her friends eat at the same time.
"Everyone has one lunch, so everyone gets to be together," Bernardy said. "I never have to worry if I'm going to eat lunch by myself."