When Anne Wesley became principal of Malley Drive Elementary School in Northglenn six years ago, the school had about 460 students. Over the next three years, enrollment gradually dropped to below 400.

Maureen Maloney, also known as "Coach Mo" plays "Cookie Monster Tag" with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.
Maureen Maloney, also known as “Coach Mo” plays “Cookie Monster Tag” with students at Malley Drive Elementary during recess.

“I was losing quite a few families,” said Wesley.

It wasn’t exactly that they didn’t like Malley Drive, but there were lots of new specialty schools in that pocket of the Adams 12 Five Star district. There was a STEM school, an arts-infused school, a magnet school for gifted students and a charter school offering intensive foreign language instruction. Two of them were within walking distance. The others were an easy drive.

“Parents really have a lot of choice, especially in our neighborhood,” said Cristi Hulse, a fourth-grade teacher at Malley Drive. “It was kind of like the new tennis shoe. Everybody’s got to try it out.”

With the competition for kids stiff, Wesley decided the school needed a special focus to help stem the tide of departures. In early 2012, she learned about a national non-profit program called Playworks, which provides full-time coaches to run recess games, after-school sports and student leadership training at low-income, urban schools. It seemed like the perfect foundation for a physical activity and wellness focus.

There was only one problem. Even with a $42,000 subsidy from Playworks, the program would cost Malley Drive $28,000 a year. It was a hefty price tag for a school where nearly 80 percent of students are low-income. Plus, it came at a time when the district was facing a budget crisis and principals were being asked to return any “carry-over” money that was left in their school budgets at the end of the year.

After months of research and meetings to gain staff buy-in on the program, Wesley brought her case to the superintendent, pushing to use her carry-over funds for Playworks. Her plan was approved and Malley Drive became a Playworks school in the fall of 2012.

“The superintendent kind of recognized my little school was floundering,” she said. “I was very fortunate.”

Today, Malley Drive has nearly 450 students. While Wesley said she can’t draw a direct line between Playworks and her increasing enrollment, she believes it might be one factor helping keep families at the school.

“It gives the school that selling point,” said Hulse.

Transforming recess

Maureen Maloney, or “Coach Mo” as the kids call her, is the face of Playworks at Malley Drive. A buoyant presence with a constant smile, she spends two hours on the playground every day during lunch recess, serving as social director, cheerleader, playmate, and occasionally, mediator.

One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.
One student made a house out of a hula hoops at recess.

On a recent day, bundled in a down jacket and a hat with ear flaps, she played “cookie monster tag” with about two dozen students as tiny snowflakes fell from the sky.

When two boys veered from tagging to mild rough-housing, she called out, “Boys, butterfly touches!” When a new child approached the group, wanting to get in the game, she immediately welcomed him.

“Are you a cookie monster? High five! What’s your name?….I’m glad you’re out here playing with us now.”

Nearby, smaller groups of children took part in other Playworks games like four square, wall ball and knockout. Overall, about three-quarters of students spend their recess doing Playworks activities and the rest do their own thing on the playground.

One widely-lauded outcome of Playworks is a reduction in playground spats and their inevitable spill-over into the classroom. Wesley said before the program launched, she’d routinely block out the lunch hour to deal with conflicts that arose during recess. Hulse said staff also had to ban recess football because kids got too physical and would end up fighting.

Now, like at all Playworks schools, kids use “ro sham bo” — also known as “rock, paper, scissors” — to solve minor playground problems. The school also has 15 “junior coaches” in the fourth and fifth grades to help Maloney ensure that kids work out their differences peacefully. Wesley emphasizes that Playworks gives teachers more time for instruction because students come back from recess settled and ready to focus.

Hulse said, “It’s been a great addition to our building and as a teacher, I like that we have a common language and a common ground to work with the kids.”

Playworks also seems to address parents’ two biggest fears about recess: that their child will be bullied or excluded. Parent Nicole Martin, who choiced her son into Malley Drive last year as a second-grader, said he used to sit out during recess at his old school, either because of his shy demeanor or long lines to get on playground equipment. Now, he always joins in Playworks games.

“I think it’s a great idea to have it,” she said.

Shannon Hays, who has a second-grader at Malley Drive, said she likes that Playworks emphasizes lifelong social skills such as compromise, using words to solve problems and being a good team player.

It’s a little pricey she said, “but I think it’s worth the money for what kids get out of it,” she said. “At least they get it here.”

More than recess

Playworks may be most closely associated with recess, but coaches work full at their schools, running a variety of play-based programs. At Malley Drive, Maloney holds “class game time” with individual classrooms every other week, teaching new games and class-building activities. She also runs the junior coach program, which at Malley and five other pilot schools includes a weekly after-school leadership class. Finally, she coaches free after-school volleyball and basketball teams that travel to other Playworks schools for games.

A student plays "knockout" during recess at Malley Drive.
A student plays “knockout” during recess at Malley Drive.

Currently, Playworks operates in 16 Colorado schools, most of those in Denver and Aurora. To qualify, at least 50 percent of a school’s students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Andrea Woolley, Denver executive director of Playworks, said the organization plans to add two new schools in January, six more next year and four more the following year.

In addition to providing coaches to schools, Playworks also provides “Power of Play” trainings to schools and organizations like Boys and Girls Clubs. Next year, she’s planning an effort to reach out to the state’s rural communities.

“We really want to be known statewide,” she said.

Although Malley Drive didn’t change its name to reflect its physical activity and wellness focus, Wesley said when prospective families visit, she always talks about Playworks and the school’s other special features. For example, students get a minimum of 35 minutes of recess time a day, plus an additional 30-50 minutes of activity on p.e. days. This year, the school also offers universal free breakfast.

There’s also the fact that since last year, teachers no longer take away recess as a punishment. Now, kids who goof off in class may have to jump rope or hula hoop for five minutes when recess begins, but they no longer sit against the wall watching their classmates play.

“We really had to examine our belief system…about using recess as a carrot to hold over kids,” said Wesley. “Since we’ve brought Playworks on board, the kids, they know this is their sacred time.”