On a Tuesday in September, more than 75 Riverside High School students spent their lunch period crammed into a history classroom, voluntarily signing up for more homework.

It was the interest meeting for Model UN—a club where students roleplay as delegates to the United Nations and debate real-world problems like climate change and nuclear proliferation—and the turnout was unprecedented.

Model UN is one of the most academically intensive clubs offered at Riverside. But given that the previous two school years at the Durham school have been dominated by remote online learning, it makes sense that students were especially drawn to the globally minded club this year, despite the extra work it entails, says Sam Ostrovsky, a sophomore and one of Riverside’s four Model UN club leaders.

“Model UN allows people to broaden their knowledge of the world outside their bedrooms—which we were all trapped in, during the pandemic,” Ostrovsky says.

In 60 seconds, Ostrovsky lists multiple examples of said knowledge—that Mexicans and Spaniards speak different dialects of Spanish, for one, or that Ukrainians and Russians speak two different languages despite sharing Slavic ancestry and using the Cyrillic script.

“Can you imagine if people commonly knew these kinds of things?” Ostrovsky says. “We would all get along a lot better. There’d be [fewer] political problems and divisiveness, because so many of our current problems come from not knowing what’s happening in other places.”

The club also bolsters students’ public speaking skills, he adds.

While attendance has dropped a bit since the interest meeting, Model UN is still going strong, with more than 50 students who regularly attend the club’s weekly gatherings.

But like the majority of clubs at Riverside, Model UN’s engagement relies on one variable: the school’s lunch schedule.

In fall 2019, Riverside’s then principal, Tonya Williams, made a major alteration to the school’s lunch model.

For years, Riverside used a three-cycle lunch schedule, where students were assigned to A, B, or C lunch windows that took place before third period, in the middle of third period, or after third period, respectively.

(For classes, Riverside uses a block schedule where students attend four 90-minute course periods each day. When the school was using the three-cycle lunch model, students’ lunch periods were dictated by their third period class; all students in third-period journalism, for instance, were assigned to B lunch.)

But Williams had a different idea.

If every student at Riverside shared a single, hour-long lunch period—SMART Lunch, she called it—there could be all sorts of benefits.

With SMART Lunch, all students could eat at the reasonable time of 12:15 p.m. (the three-cycle lunch model, alternatively, required one-third of students to eat lunch at around two p.m.).

Because SMART Lunch would be lengthier than the 45-minute A/B/C lunch periods—and because it would allow all teachers to hold the same office hours—students would have the time, and the accessibility, to do more than just eat. After polishing off their PB&Js, they could attend 30-minute club meetings or tutoring sessions, visit teachers to complete make-up tests or missing classwork, or, for seniors, knock out a few college applications.

In this sense, the SMART Lunch model promised to alleviate stress, increase equity, and boost academic performance among students.

Students long thwarted from participating in after-school activities—those who play sports or who rely on the school bus for transportation—could join clubs and engage with their coursework in ways that were previously impossible.

And students with medical issues, who frequently have to scramble to coordinate make-up tests with multiple teachers, would have a reliable time window to complete their work.

Of course, some students would use the entire lunch period to socialize, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Students with social anxiety would be guaranteed the same lunch period as their friends—and, though Williams didn’t know this at the time, the COVID-19 pandemic would severely worsen social anxiety among high schoolers in the coming years.

Williams first pitched the idea of SMART Lunch in 2017 but waited to roll out the program until 2019, when she had gotten 80 percent buy-in from faculty and staff, according to a teacher who spoke with the INDY on the condition of anonymity.

While a handful of other North Carolina high schools had implemented similar models, Riverside would be the first Durham Public Schools institution to put it into practice. That seemed risky to some faculty members. And because SMART Lunch, at least in its original form, would allow Riverside’s 1,600-plus students to roam the halls as they desired (as opposed to being sequestered in the cafeteria), some teachers feared that safety issues would arise from their inability to supervise the entire campus.

Ultimately, though, most faculty members felt that the potential benefits of the model greatly outweighed the risks, and school leadership devised a comprehensive rotating supervision system where teachers would serve one “lunch duty” shift each week.

In August 2019, when students who are currently seniors were entering high school as bright-eyed freshmen, SMART Lunch finally saw its debut.

Just over one semester later, the pandemic put a long-term pause on the new initiative, but since Riverside’s return to in-person learning in spring 2021, students—who spoke with both the INDY and Wade Gabriel, a Riverside senior, for this story—overwhelmingly feel that Williams’s vision has been realized.

(Williams left Riverside in early 2021 to take a position as area assistant superintendent for Johnston County Public Schools. She could not be reached for comment.)

Ostrovsky, the Model UN leader, dedicates his after-school hours to running cross-country and winter and spring track. The other three club leaders also play sports.

“There’s no chance that any of us would be able to lead the club if we didn’t have SMART Lunch,” Ostrovsky says, adding that he and his fellow leaders devote three lunch periods to planning, hosting, and reviewing Model UN meetings each week. “The club would essentially dissolve.”

Model UN aside, Ostrovsky says SMART Lunch plays an integral role in allowing him to maintain good grades, as he frequently misses chunks of his fourth-period class due to athletic obligations.

“There is no chance that I would have straight A’s right now if I did not have the allotted one-hour time to study and go to tutoring and take make-up tests,” Ostrovsky says. “This is really the biggest blessing that I’ve ever come across.”

More than 20 other students offer similar praise.

“I would spend pretty much every Wednesday and Friday in [Mr.] Bolen’s SMART Lunch last year … in order to understand the content,” says Elena Paces-Wiles, a junior who runs cross-country. “That is the only reason that I got ‘distinguished’  in the exam and an A in the class, even though I’m not very STEM-oriented.”

“It legit kept me from failing,” says senior Owen Transue. “It’s a huge mental health benefit.”

With SMART Lunch, students say, their grades are higher, their college applications are bolstered, their social needs are filled, and their stomachs are fed before any kind of hunger-induced brain fog kicks in.

And through a pandemic lens, the initiative could not have come at a better time.

In North Carolina, only 45 percent of students in grades K-12 passed state reading, math, and science exams during the 2020-21 school year. Low-income students and minority students fared the worst, with proficiency ratings in the mid-to-high 20s.

So at a school like Riverside—where around 60 percent of students are Black or Hispanic and 35 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—pandemic-induced learning loss has been a major concern.

But thanks to SMART Lunch, Riverside students have been able to put extra time into recovering learning losses—and, from a more long-term perspective, many feel they’re more confident in their ability to complete coursework.

That is, until three months ago, when SMART Lunch was abruptly, but temporarily, taken away.

As at many public high schools, physical fights among students have long been an issue at Riverside, with administrators left puzzling over how to best address a systemic problem that is rooted outside the walls of the school.

Mandatory hall passes, well-publicized disciplinary consequences, and the presence of school resource officers act as a first line of prevention. In 2017, when this INDY reporter was a senior at Riverside, administrators implemented a policy that punished “student bystanders”—students who took video recordings of fights—with five days of out-of-school suspension to further deter violence between students. (The policy is no longer listed in the Riverside Student Handbook.)

Still, the fights persist—and now, it seems, SMART Lunch may be in the hot seat.

On September 22 at 4:09 p.m.—six minutes before the end of the school day—teachers received an email from administrators that detailed a shift back to the A/B/C lunch schedule, to be implemented immediately the next day.

As The Pirates’ Hook student newspaper reported, parents received an automated call from Riverside’s current principal, Dr. Gloria Woods-Weeks, an hour later, who cited safety concerns as the reason behind the schedule change.

“We are very proud of our SMART Lunch program, but we have had some recent concerning incidents during lunchtime that do not meet our standards of respectful behavior between fellow students,” Woods-Weeks stated in the call. Woods-Weeks did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.

The SMART Lunch suspension would be temporary, Woods-Weeks continued. The model would be reinstated after administrators had a chance to “reset, revamp our program, [and] have those conversations with students who we need to have conversations with.”

Indeed, two weeks later, SMART Lunch returned. But not before students saw what their lives would be like without it.

In that two-week interim, students who typically used SMART Lunch to study and complete make-up work say that they experienced extreme anxiety over their grades and lost their grasp on class material. Clubs and tutoring sessions, hastily rescheduled to before-school hours, saw a plummet in attendance. Students assigned to the C lunch block, at 1:55 p.m., were so hungry they couldn’t pay attention in class.

Things felt so dire that two students quickly launched separate petitions calling on administrators to immediately reinstate the model. One petition received 345 signatures, while the other, created by senior Myles Ettu, gathered a whopping 1,268.

“If two kids fought in class—let’s say it’s Math 2—would you cancel the class?” Ettu says. “Would you cancel Math 2 and take away the opportunity for everyone?”

The week that SMART Lunch was revoked, Riverside administrators held four grade-wide assemblies to screen slideshows about school safety and listen to feedback from students.

Most students expressed a strong desire for the SMART Lunch model to continue, and some offered solutions to the administration’s safety concerns: the lunch duty map could be reworked to place more teachers in areas where fights are most common, students said, or students who break school rules could be required to spend SMART Lunch in a designated classroom.

Students say that they didn’t feel particularly heard; administrators weren’t writing down anything they said and sometimes countered their suggestions, on the spot, as being unfeasible. Some students sent follow-up emails to Woods-Weeks but received identical, copy-paste responses and were left with a sense that she didn’t read their feedback.

Regardless, on October 6, SMART Lunch was reinstated, and things returned to normal.

Then, in early December, students started to hear rumors—credible rumors, they say, from their own teachers—that the model would end permanently at the start of the spring semester.

Two teachers, each of whom spoke with the INDY on the condition of anonymity, say that to their knowledge, there is no concrete plan to cancel SMART Lunch. But one of the teachers—we’ll call him Mr. Johnson—shared that faculty members have reasons to believe that the model will soon be revoked and feel that the principal’s calls for student and teacher input are a charade.

On Friday of last week, teachers were asked to attend meetings with administrators during their planning periods to discuss SMART Lunch, Johnson says.

The majority of teachers in his meeting were strong proponents of the model, he says. Many echoed the safety tips that students had suggested, with some adding that a post-lunch tardy sweep could be helpful—several of this year’s larger fights happened just after SMART lunch transitioned into third period, but the school hasn’t performed a tardy sweep all year—and others encouraging administrators to cover open lunch duty positions.

Woods-Weeks has not shown any data that SMART Lunch has actually led to an increase in fights, Johnson adds.

And even if the data exists, students are asking administrators to broaden their lenses.

There may be a few wrinkles to iron out, students say, but in the long term, the model—and all it does for students’ well-being—will prevent fights from the ground up.

In a few years, if SMART Lunch continues, you might spot a group of fist-fight-inclined students in the Model UN classroom—demolishing each other with knowledge. 

Wade Gabriel, a senior at Riverside High School, contributed to this report.

Update: A Durham Public Schools spokesperson sent the following statement after this story was published: “Smart Lunch is a recent offering to Riverside’s students to allow freedom of movement, access to academic acceleration, and productive socialization during a single lunch period. It’s being reviewed with Riverside stakeholders to ensure that our students are experiencing the intended and appropriate outcomes.”

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Staff Writer Lena Geller on Twitter or send an email to lgeller@indyweek.com. Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com