The Other 60 Percent

Six small districts win healthy kids grants

The first time staff in the tiny rural Bethune School District in eastern Colorado tried to explain to youngsters that French fries would not count toward the veggie category on the food pyramid, they were met with blank stares.

Equally vacant stares met them when pomegranates and kiwis were introduced to a few lunch menus in the 131-student school district near the Kansas border.

Not anymore. Students are now used to logging the foods they eat on MyPyramid.gov website. Most of them don’t bat an eye at the new physical education requirements or the constant chatter among teachers about the ongoing “My Biggest Loser” contest. They’re used to no butter anywhere in sight and whole wheat lunch rolls and the fact they need three physical education credits to graduate from high school.

Today, the Colorado Department of Education announced that Bethune and five other small districts will receive $20,000 over two years from the Colorado Legacy Foundation via the Colorado Health Foundation. Founded in 2007, the Legacy Foundation is governed by an independent board of trustees that develops initiatives to support the Colorado Department of Education’s initiatives in innovation, entrepreneurship, 21st-century teaching and learning and the dissemination of best practices.

A tight budget prompted Bethune Superintendent Shila Adolf to go for the Healthy Kids Learn Better grant. The CDE, which requires all district have health and wellness plans in place, awarded $160,000 in grants to 10 small and large districts. The money will be available to districts March 5.

Adolf said she believes strongly in kids and staff staying healthy. She personally has lost 14 pounds since August. All told, the 18  “Biggest Loser” participants lost a combined 137 pounds. The system was tweaked, though, when it became clear nobody wanted the thin staffers on their teams.

Now, body mass index is calculated into a point system as well. Some of the Legacy dollars will pay for rewards such as Safeway gift cards and school spirit gear for winners. One of the goals is to reduce the district’s health insurance premiums. Teachers are encouraged to go on walks during breaks and are supplied with pedometers and water bottles. Together, they take Latin Zumba classes taught by a district teacher.

The school now gives students choices of food rather than dumping it on a plate for them. Seventy percent of the school’s children qualify for free and reduced price lunch. And 94 percent of those youth participate in the federally funded lunch program.

“(Students) are choosing fresh vegetables more often,” Adolf said. “We removed students’ ability to have seconds on the main entrée. They can only have seconds on fruits and vegetables. For a while, the kids thought the lunch ladies were so mean. But once we showed them the right serving size for their age, they found out they had been eating two to three times that amount.”

“Now, I think they’re very excited about it.”

Adolf has a personal goal to lose another 30 pounds.

This is exactly the sort of innovation the Colorado Legacy Foundation is trying to support through the $868,080 it received last summer from the Colorado Health Foundation. The one- and two-year grants are designed to improve student achievement by implementing best practices related to nutrition, physical education, health education, school-based health and workplace wellness for students and staff.

“Healthy students and academic achievement go hand in hand,” said Helayne Jones, executive director of the Colorado Legacy Foundation. “The Colorado Health Foundation’s latest health report card documents that Colorado continues to fall behind in important areas affecting children’s health.”

All 10 school districts will use the Legacy Foundation’s 2009 Best Practices Guide to assist them with their health and wellness programs. Available here, the guide is the second in a series of annual best practices published by the Colorado Legacy Foundation in collaboration with the CDE.

Grant recipients can use the money to pay for costs associated with conducting the completion of the Best Practices Guide checklist and implementing the Best Practices Guide plan including classroom education, program activities, equipment; training, staff wellness programs, policy development, school or district team meetings and stipends.

In the Boulder Valley, Interim Director of Nutrition Services Ann Cooper plans to use the money to boost the number of students who eat school-made lunches. Right now, about a third of the district’s 26,000 students participate. She’d like at least half of them to eat at school so economies of scale work in her advantage when budgeting for food purchases.

Cooper said she plans to get cooks to give samples of lunch menu items – say, chicken quesadillas – to students a day or two before they’re really on the menu so they might pick up a tray the day they’re served. Cooper said it’s great when parents pack healthy lunches but not all of them do.

“A lot of parents may not know what healthy food is. We see kids with Lunchables and things like that.”

Julie Poppen can be reached at jpoppen@frii.com.

Districts awarded $10,000 per year for two years:

Bethune School District – Nutrition, health education, physical activity and employee wellness

Campo School District RE-6 – – Nutrition and employee wellness

Durango School District 9-R – Health education and employee wellness

East Grand School District – Nutrition and employee wellness

Elizabeth C-1 School District – Health education and physical activity

Monte Vista C-8 School District – Health education, nutrition, physical activity and employee wellness

Districts receiving $10,000 for one year:

Boulder Valley School District – Nutrition

Colorado Springs School District 11 – Coordinated school health

Thompson School District – Employee wellness

Weld County School District 6 – Nutrition

aftermath

‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

First Responder

Jeffco’s superintendent has some ideas about preventing school shootings — and none of them involve gun control or armed teachers

Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

Superintendent Jason Glass of the Jefferson County school district isn’t interested in talking about gun control in the wake of yet another deadly school shooting.

Home of Columbine High School, Jefferson County is no stranger to these tragedies or their aftermath, and Glass doesn’t think calls for restricting firearms will get any more traction this time than they have before. Nor is he interested in talking about arming teachers, a proposal he considers just as much of a political dead end.

“A solution is only a solution if we can actually enact it,” Glass wrote in a blog post published Monday. “We are not able to get either of these solutions passed into law so they have no impact.”

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to talk about, he wrote. Glass lays out four ideas that he sees as more politically feasible and that might make a difference:

  • Put trained, armed law enforcement officials in every school
  • Increase funding and support for school mental health services
  • Create a federally funded center to study school safety and security
  • Change the layout of and access to school buildings to make them safer, much the way we’ve renovated airports, stadiums, and other public facilities

Glass describes these measures as “proactive, preventative, and reactive steps that would make a big impact in making our schools much safer than they are today.”

Some schools and districts already have an armed police presence on campus or offer mental health services, but Glass argues these efforts need more money, more support, and more cohesion.

“These solutions need to come from the federal level to create the scale and impact we really need,” he wrote. “Congress and the President need to act and now. … Flexibility and deference can be built into these solutions to accommodate differences across states and communities – but we have a national crisis on our hands and we have to start acting like it.”

Of course, even studying something, as Glass envisions this new center on school safety doing, can be political. Since 1996, the federal government, at the urging of the National Rifle Association, has placed tight restrictions on the ability of the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence as a public health issue.

The blog post provoked a vigorous debate in the comments. Some called on Glass to join the national movement demanding more restrictions on firearms. This is not a time for “half measures,” one woman wrote.

Others said that turning schools into “fortresses” would work against their educational mission and questioned how well school resource officers could be trained to respond appropriately to students with special needs – or how fair the district-level threat assessment process is.

In the wake of another school shooting at Arapahoe High School in 2013, one largely forgotten outside the state, Colorado legislators passed a law that holds schools liable for missing warning signs in troubled students.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio, Bill Woodward, a former police officer who trains schools in how to prevent violence, said more schools are doing threat assessments. But their success may require schools to take even more seriously the idea that their own students might be dangerous.

“I think the biggest barrier is the climate of the school, because I think sometimes schools are just thinking in terms of working with students, helping students out,” Woodward told CPR. “And sometimes when you’re looking at someone who’s made a threat, you have to change to the Secret Service model.”

Woodward said a more comprehensive solution may involve gun control. Schools can’t afford to wait, though.

“There is no silver bullet, speaking metaphorically, but I think gun law changes may well be needed,” he said. “I just think we have to do what we can do now, and we can do things now.”