SHERIDAN — A multitude of factors contribute to a school’s graduation improvement. One of the reasons for the John C. Schiffer Collaborative School’s high rates last year is simple but sometimes overlooked: food options.

According to data released last month by the Wyoming Department of Education, the school had a graduation rate of 82.3 percent in 2017-18, up from 65.2 percent last year.

The Schiffer School graduated 14 of 17 students and had the best graduation rate in the state for alternative schools with at least 15 students. The average graduation rate among Wyoming’s 20 alternative schools in 2017-18 was about 56 percent.

Because the Schiffer School is located on the campus of Sheridan College, students are fed differently than in traditional high schools. Schiffer School students either pack their own meals or receive lunch offerings available to Sheridan College students and staff through Chartwells Dining Service.

Every day, Schiffer School pupils make a short walk across campus and eat lunch in the basement of the Griffith Memorial Building. They can either bring their own meal or take advantage of the college options, which always include a hot entree, side dish and dessert. There is almost always enough food left for students to eat a second helping if they choose, too.

At a Jan. 23 luncheon between the boards of trustees at Sheridan County School District 2 and the Northern Wyoming Community College District, SCSD2 board member Shellie Szmyd mentioned attending a Volunteers of America event and hearing from a Schiffer School student who said he wasn’t hungry because of the quality food supplied five days per week.

“That’s probably a kid, who, for whatever reason, isn’t getting enough to eat,” Szmyd said. “Providing that in that environment — it seems like a small thing, but … it’s probably huge.”

Schiffer School social studies instructor David Peterson said that for some students, the school meals are the best they receive in a given day.

“Moving out here (to Sheridan College), food-wise, has been a very big bonus for our school culture,” Peterson said.

Peterson also oversees the school’s other food program, an informal breakfast array in his classroom that includes bagels, yogurt, fruit, applesauce and cheese sticks. When the Schiffer School moved to the college in fall 2017, Peterson approached The Food Group about providing non-perishable breakfast items for students to grab throughout the day. The Food Group quickly agreed, and a TFG volunteer brings different food choices every week.

Arin Waddell, board president of The Food Group and an SCSD2 board member, said having a full stomach can make a huge difference in a student’s ability to learn.

“You can’t do your homework well if your basic needs aren’t met,” Waddell said. “You can’t separate that from quality of learning.”

The items in Peterson’s classroom are accessible throughout the day. On an average day, Peterson said 15 to 20 kids utilize the food offerings. The breakfast options have also helped students who might be dealing with stress or emotional trauma and haven’t eaten in a long time.

“It’s become part of our culture,” Peterson said. “It’s been this kind of happy thing that we stumbled upon.”

The food options will change when a new Schiffer School building opens — a funding proposal for about $6 million is on pace to be approved by the Wyoming Legislature this year, meaning a new school would likely open in fall 2020 — but for now, the breakfast and lunch solutions seem to be working.

Peterson said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact percentage the food has helped students in classrooms, but he said it undoubtedly been a positive contributor.

“Does this impact student learning?” Peterson said. “The answer is absolutely yes … We know some of students that, their main meal of the day comes at school, and so (if) we provide that and do a better job of that, we’re going to help them as learners.”

The Schiffer School appears to be making strides academically, and the variety of consistent food options has contributed to progress in small ways.