Kylie Burger (right), a University School of Milwaukee student, eats lunch with band director Dain Shuler. The school has a long-standing tradition of assigned seating at lunch. A staff member is also required to sit at each table to help facilitate conversation.
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.
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.